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Solar Energy Is Dominated by Waste

The numbers are in and the verdict is out: Much of the money that governments spend subsidizing solar energy is wasted.

So argues author and Copenhagen Consensus Center director Dr. Bjorn Lomborg in the pages of The Wall Street Journal earlier this week. He points out that Spain, for example, spent more money subsidizing its conversion to solar power than the country spent on its entire system of higher education last year, and that here in the U.S, we spent $14 billion subsidizing renewable energies in 2010 -- $16.5 billion if you count nuclear energy. That was more than four times the $4 billion spent on tax breaks for the entire, more energy-rich, fossil-fuels industry.

All of which may be true, but we're not talking about wasted tax dollars, today. Today, we're talking about waste, period.

Cash from trash
Specifically, we're talking about Waste Management (NYSE: WM  ) , America's biggest trash hauler by revenues -- and apparently, nearly as big an energy producer as the nation's entire solar industry.

Through a variety of alternative energy projects, from burning trash in incinerators to generate electricity ("waste-to-energy"), to capturing waste "landfill gases" for refinement into clean natural gas, Waste Management generates the energy equivalent of 9.8 gigawatts, or GW, of electricity. In contrast, every solar energy company in the nation -- combined -- generates only a little more than 10 GW. One area of particular growth at Waste Management is the use of landfill gases to power trucks that run on compressed natural gas.

Today, Waste Management has the ability to produce the equivalent of 680 megawatts worth of electricity from methane and other gases produced at its dump sites. That's enough energy to power nearly half a million U.S. homes annually.

And as big as Waste Management is already, it aims to get even bigger.

Last month, Waste Management announced a plan to build a plant in Fairmont City, Ill., that will convert gases generated by its Milam Landfill into pipeline-ready natural gas that can power compressed natural-gas-fueled trucks. Waste Management estimates that this single landfill will produce enough gas daily to run 400 large CNG-fueled trucks. The project is expected to be up and running by late summer 2014.

Once it is running, it will be the third such plant that Waste Management operates for this purpose. And even those represent just a small fraction of the 130-plus projects the company has in operation around the country, using landfill gas to produce natural gas fuel, or burning gas on-site to produce electricity. Over time, the company aims to keep adding projects until, by the year 2020, it's generating enough renewable energy to power more than two million U.S. homes -- up from 1.2 million currently.

Nearly as big as solar
Let's put those numbers in context. If Waste Management succeeds in its goal, we're talking about 67% total growth in energy production over the next seven years ... for a company that's not even, strictly speaking, in the energy production business.

In contrast, thin film solar energy company First Solar (NASDAQ: FSLR  ) does about $3.5 billion in annual revenue today, and analysts think it may grow its business to $4.2 billion annually by 2016 (as far out as projections are available). That's only 20% growth in three years -- versus Waste Management's projection of more than three times as much growth, in only about twice as many years.

Now, are their other energy production companies that are growing their businesses faster than Waste Management? Sure there are. Analyst estimates for revenue at SunPower Corporation (NASDAQ: SPWR  ) , for example, call for 52% growth between now and 2016. Elon Musk's much smaller SolarCity (NASDAQ: SCTY  ) venture for leasing rooftop solar systems is growing even faster -- tripling its revenues between now and 2016, if analyst estimates are to be believed.

Foolish takeaway
Numbers like these show that Waste Management is growing this tangential part of its waste-removal business at a respectable pace -- slower than many pure-play alternative energy companies, to be sure, but faster than others. That Waste Management is able to do even this much when it's not even technically the company's job to try and solve the world's energy problems is nothing short of remarkable.

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Read/Post Comments (21) | Recommend This Article (9)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On November 24, 2013, at 11:24 AM, speculawyer wrote:

    But solar power can grow since there is massive amounts of untapped area to install solar. The amount of waste we generate is limited. And hopefully it will even decrease as we become better at recycling.

  • Report this Comment On November 24, 2013, at 11:55 AM, Sciencedirst wrote:

    According to National Geographic, the US spent

    $15 billion on subsidies and tax breaks for fossil fuels in 2010. These subsidies were unnecessary for a highly-profitable,well-established industry that is bring us climate change disasters that will be much worse in the future.

    Shame onThe Mötley Fool for re-printing the notorious climate " skeptic" Bjorn Lomborg's comments without pointing out that he has made a career out of denying that climate change is a problem. There is a entire website devoted to documenting his errors:

    You can read more about Lomborg and what his fellow Danes think about him at the Desmog Blog.

    The subsidies that need to be stopped are the $88 billion that have gone to fossil fuels onthe last decade. Fossil fuels need today the hidden costs of their products that are already costing the average taxpayer about $400 per year.

  • Report this Comment On November 24, 2013, at 12:01 PM, FMagyar wrote:

    Agree with speculawyer here. So the only way waste manegment companies can grow is if we as a society continue to produce more waste. Hopefully that paradigm will not continue for long! As for subsidizing a transition to renewables such as solar and wind that is something that we as a society need to do!

    And last but not least we need to manage our expectations and get a handle on what our true needs are for a high standard of living, my guess is that we have an awful lot of fat that we can cut and still live quite comfortably. As for Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, I am definitely not a fan of his work!

  • Report this Comment On November 24, 2013, at 12:20 PM, nakedfool wrote:

    But fellas, It's not waste if it's being use to create electricity. In fact that make it a valuable resource that will always be renewed whether we like it or not. I have said for years that landfills are just "storing" trash until we need it. The possibilities are endless.

  • Report this Comment On November 24, 2013, at 5:04 PM, VegasSmitty wrote:

    The MF gets worse every week. Hire some writers that aren't liberal hacks.

  • Report this Comment On November 24, 2013, at 5:14 PM, Barmil wrote:

    I think it is smart that Waste Management is doing something about a fuel resource that makes sense to take advantage of. To produce local CNG to supply their own fleet and the local fleet operators with a clean fuel source but it also keeps the money local.

    Now for the reduction of waste who are we kidding this country is all bout waste, we were more ecological in the 40's and 50's look at what has been taken away from that time period. All bottled products where in glass, glass that was recycled many times for new bottles and the sanitation of the bottles provided needed jobs.

    Food was not wasted or thrown out it was used only as required ,meat for example were not wholesale slaughtered and sold in big box stores

    they were sold locally at the butcher who processed the whole animal even the fat was reduced into food and animal food.

    Today we throw out massive amounts of waste just shear of unsold food stuffs that have expired out lack of sales. plastic bottles by the millions that are not disposed of properly.

    Let start the initiative of using and reusing materials that can be cost effective, until that time and goal is reached waste will continue to be a massive problem.

  • Report this Comment On November 24, 2013, at 5:36 PM, piasabird wrote:

    When you look at solar power it is hard to quatify what the savings is in clean air. This is similar to hydroelectric power. It cost more but there is tangible value in having cleaner air.

  • Report this Comment On November 24, 2013, at 5:38 PM, piasabird wrote:

    Maybe we should start tearing down all the houses that are not energy efficient.

  • Report this Comment On November 24, 2013, at 5:45 PM, piasabird wrote:

    Maybe we should have a target for residential housing for power usage and if you exceed that you pay more.

  • Report this Comment On November 24, 2013, at 6:07 PM, piasabird wrote:

    I usually buy all my meat from a local neighborhood butcher/grocer. It is no different than a large grocery store. They have butchers also. You dont see them unless they are bringing meat out to put in the coolers. I dont know what happens to the fat that they trim off of the meat. I imagine that there is some kind regulated disposal cost of fat. Even a fry and hamburger place has a cost associated with waste oil and grease. You may buy wholesale meat in boxes, but I dont.

  • Report this Comment On November 24, 2013, at 9:22 PM, vet212 wrote:

    If you plate all our wilderness areas over with solar cells you will be able to run one -1- major city solar is even more inefficient than coal or oil fuel for electric generation

  • Report this Comment On November 24, 2013, at 11:14 PM, Sciencedirst wrote:

    All of vet212's statements are untrue. Austin TX is running 35% on renewables already and their electricity costs less than coal, oil or gas.

    Speaking of untrue, Bjorn Lomborg has been shown to be guilty of academic dishonesty by Scientidic American and any others. His statements in this article are false also.

    Gas from from trash is not clean energy, which is what we need now to prevent what climate scientists project as "catastrophic" climate change in future decades. And they do not use the word "catastrophic" lightly.

  • Report this Comment On November 25, 2013, at 12:11 AM, atthenccoast wrote:

    Sciencedirst needs to check his facts: From Wikipedia; Austin Energy’s total generation is nearly 3,000 megawatts. The service area is powered through a diverse generation mix of nuclear, coal, natural gas and renewable resources, mainly wind power.[3] Austin Energy has a goal to achieve 35% of its energy supply from renewable resources by 2020. By January 2013, Austin Energy renewables will be delivering about 27.5% of the energy produced by the utility, as reported in its 2012 Generation Plan Update. That portfolio will include 849 MW of wind turbines, 30 MW of large scale solar and 100 MW of wood-chip fueled biomass. Additionally, Austin Energy has a goal to reduce carbon emissions 20% below 2005 levels. Austin Energy is exploring options to reduce its dependence on the coal-fired Fayette Power Project.[4] Solar and wind generation DO NOT cost less per KW/hour and if government subsidies ended, it would be far to expensive to consider. I have posed the question to several power company Presidents.....If tomorrow, all customers used 20% less electricity would we pay lower bills? Answer, NO! The company has fixed cost and a profit to make based on current revenues levels. That revenue level must be maintained and increased for inflation and increased cost of regulation. Just because it's renewable does not make solar and wind generation cheap up front or for the long haul at least for now.

  • Report this Comment On November 25, 2013, at 1:14 AM, AorphiA wrote:

    When do we as individuals get to charge Waste Management for picking up our garbage instead of them charging us to pick up our garbage?

  • Report this Comment On November 25, 2013, at 5:30 AM, NoiTall wrote:

    piasabird: in california there IS base residential rate. Above that usage, you pay WAY MORE in tiers. at top rate pay 28c kwh, while base is around 6 or 8c /kwh. This is not for ecological incentive but for company to make money.

    It is actually anti-ecological as it punished those who have more people in their house. If you were to rent out rooms then the total electricity would be a bit less than those people living separately, but the bill is way higher.

    as for the neighborhood butchers, they are no more and probably less efficient than the large processing companies. every part of the animals is sold for food, pet food, other use or industrial use. it is inefficient to have small shops processing small quantities of items. That said, as a free country, it should be your right, as it is, to purchase more expensive, inefficiently produced items, as you may perceive better quality, etc.

  • Report this Comment On November 25, 2013, at 10:24 AM, kwaonzit wrote:

    A couple of comments. I live a bit North of Topeka Ks & a couple of miles from a big Waste Mgmt landfill. It was a rock quarry & they still do the rock,but its been there for 35-40 yrs as a landfill. Once stiff Fed regulations kicked in the early '80s,all the municipal/county landfills had to close up,ensuring a virtual monopoly. In fact,since they do hazardous waste also trucks would roll in from out of state,it might be the only one in that category for many hundreds of miles. What boggles my mind is between Topeka(pop 150,000) & surrounding areas,just how much "stuff" is buried there in 40yrs! I've used Waste Mgmt since Jan'95. My bill then was $19.00 a mo,now its $33.00 which is a good bit above the average inflation rate(avg inflation rate% would be $28.27) AND finally,after reading this article I'm pretty ticked off about their phony fuel surcharge they added on around '08(always have been). That's $7.00 a mo. Any lawyers out there? How bout a class action lawsuit for felonious gouging?

  • Report this Comment On November 25, 2013, at 10:52 AM, Rodney7777 wrote:

    Fuel from waste will be limited as mentioned above, but solar, of course, is unlimited. For some good news, here is what Ray Kurzweil, inventor, futurist and author is predicting. Electricity from solar, worldwide, is now at .075%. That may not sound like much until you see Mr Kurzweil's charts that show world output of solar electricity is doubling every two years and has been doing so for many years. A little math shows us that in 2027, world output of solar generated electricity will be at 98%. Clean, abundant, safe, sustainable, local, and no moving parts. Like the internet (which Kurzweil also charted and accurately predicted when that would become worldwide, solar will seemingly come out of nowhere. With abundant solar powered electricity at hand, First nuclear, then coal power plants will be shut down. Same for oil drilling and refineries.

  • Report this Comment On November 25, 2013, at 11:42 AM, MoThrill wrote:

    Apples to oranges comparison. Burning methane still produces C02 although much less than oil or coal. This story also ignores the drastic downward price trend of solar energy. It is less expensive to buy solar than grid power in many parts of the US. What is the cost of the electricity produced by methane? If you are getting it at .31 cents per kwh like in California, solar smokes it in comparison at around .20 cents per kwh on a good PPA(power purchase agreement).

  • Report this Comment On November 25, 2013, at 12:42 PM, Observero0 wrote:

    Rodney777, solar panels cover up large areas of the environment thus impacting the ecosystem. There have been reports of endangered, and other, birds basically being fried by massive solar panels to say nothing of other animals and plants impacted by collecting the solar energy those plants and animals used before the massive solar farms were put in place. Same story with wind power. And neither currently have the ability to provide base load power. Further, the nasty chemicals involved in producing solar panels and batteries for wind power are a definite negative. And the costs of these forms of power are prohibitive without significant subsidies so "normal" folk can afford the power. Point is: All energy forms have down sides. All. You just m i g h t want to temper that enthusiasm until you study the ramifications of pie-in-the-sky technologies.

  • Report this Comment On November 25, 2013, at 1:12 PM, energy1 wrote:

    As much as I believe in the contribution of wind & solar to our energy situation, the concept of "waste-to-energy" is one that should not be easily dismissed. My associates & I have developed a patented system using a vortex combustion chamber (ie. a tornado on its side) which burns & total destroys (the combusted material totally disappears) the organic & inorganic material at a temperature above 2,000 degrees which causes the material to self-destruct. The heat from the combustion is used to make high-pressured steam with only about a 5% release of CO2 (which one should remember that CO2 is actually very good for trees & plants - a substantial eruption of just one volcano can release enough CO2 into the atmosphere as almost half the autos of the world release) & the steam powers a steam turbine which can generate about 6 mega watts of power; with multiple power systems like this can produce as much mega watts as you have specific systems. This system is initially ignited using natural gas, propane or methane from landfills. Once the combustion chamber is ignited the material burns itself to nothing. The only material it can't combust is metal or glass ( we leave that to the recyclers). The sytem is perfect for landfill owners to use not only by using their methane gas to ignite the system but to burn the material before it gets into the landfill, produce electric power & sell it to end users & the rest sell to the grid. If you would like to hear more about this system just email me at:: This is a very workable & economical technology solution to generate revenue via waste.

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2015, at 10:18 AM, ronaldswanson55 wrote:

    I had no idea waste management was doing this waste-to-energy technique. I wonder how much it is affecting the environment with these landfill gases, and if it is worth it to burn trash or not to. I feel like the benefits of capturing this energy far outweighs the down side of the gases that come from burning the waste.

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