In March of 2008, in response to a contract by the California Integrated Waste Management Board, the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at UC Davis published "Current Anaerobic Digestion Technologies Used for Treatment of Municipal Organic Solid Waste". This is a really thorough and very readable examination of the opportunity to use this technology in California.
One question that frequently comes up in discussion is "If this technology is so great, why hasn't it been deployed in the United States?" The UC Davis report addresses this question with:
"Although the U.S. has a long history of treating agricultural and municipal wastewater with anaerobic digesters, no commercial-scale solid waste digesters are operating despite several favorable (though economically marginal) feasibility studies and laboratory findings. Generally in the U.S. and most of California, landfills continue to be the lowest-cost option for managing MSW [municipal solid waste], since unlike Europe and Japan, space for new landfills is not as scarce, waste management policies are less rigorous, and full life-cycle costs and impacts are not accounted for. Furthermore, the energy market and regulatory mechanisms for licensing MSW AD and other conversion facilities in California have not been developed to easily accommodate commercial systems.
Anaerobic digestion of municipal organic waste is a proven technology, but until very recently the economic case has been marginal -- not compelling. Palo Alto just happens to be one place in the United States where the economics is as compelling as the environmental benefits. This is because:
Palo Alto can process our three streams of organics (yard, food, and sewage) in one anaerobic digestion facility, and thereby retire the incinerator, save on disposal costs, and generate revenues from renewable electricity and compost. Although a careful cost/benefit analysis should be done as part of a feasibility study, the economic case for Palo Alto looks very strong.
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