How to Track New Opportunities in the Green Economy
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Green Jobs Making Waste into Energy

To find your green career, you have to identify where your skills and passions fit. If you believe that renewable energy is one of the most important foundations of an environmentally sustainable future, you may want to focus your job search on garbage. Yes, garbage. Waste is one of the most abundant resources on the planet, and it’s generally buried in eco-harmful landfills. The green economy has to address this, which means a rich opportunity for green job-seekers.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Federal Power Act, and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) consider waste-to-energy to be a renewable source of energy because the power is created from a sustainable, abundant resource that is available locally. Thanks to innovations in waste management, two overlapping technologies have arisen that relieve pressure on close-to-capacity landfills while producing energy at the same time: biomass power (or biopower) and waste-to-energy (WTE).

The United States currently has more than 100 biomass power plants in 20 states. According to the Department of Energy (DOE), with the exception of hydropower, biomass power produces more electricity than any other renewable energy resource in the United States. The biomass power industry is likely to be concentrated in rural areas of the West Coast, the Mississippi Valley from the upper Midwest to the mouth of the Mississippi River, the Southeast, and Maine.

Eighty-seven of the waste-to-energy plants built since the 1970s are still in operation in 27 states. These plants process only 8 percent of the waste produced in the U.S. each year, meaning that the industry has ample room to expand. More than 500 waste-to-energy plants have been built worldwide.

Future trends in the waste to energy field

Some coal plants are now adding up to 20 percent biomass in a process called co-firing. In addition to lowering the cost of operations, adding biomass reduces greenhouse emissions. A 2009 study in Science demonstrated that fueling cars with electricity from biomass was 80 percent more efficient than using the same biomass to produce biofuels. That means investment dollars may be diverted to biomass electricity production from liquid biofuels.

One of the most important next steps for this industry is to create demonstration plants to familiarize the public and politicians with the process and the benefits of biomass power. Building confidence in the technology is likely to lead to more interest in commercial applications. Another key determinant is how it is classified in the climate change policy discussions. If biomass is categorized as a carbon emitter, then all the carbon tax or trading rules will apply to the industry. The industry might contract as a result of additional taxes or fees. If it’s designated as a source of renewable energy, then incentives to use this methodology will be put in place.

The waste-to-energy industry must overcome some history. Back in 1994 the Supreme Court ruled that urban areas must transport their waste long distances to newly created landfills. As a result, development of new WTE plants stopped. A more recent ruling by the courts has restored communities’ ability to determine where their waste goes for processing. Concerns stem from the fact that early WTE plants didn’t adequately address environmental issues. These issues have now been addressed, and some of the biggest companies are winning awards for their environmental work. The other concern environmentalists have is that people will stop recycling if they know their trash will be taken care of by the local WTE plan. Studies indicate, however, that the average recycling rate is higher than average in WTE communities.

Sample jobs in the waste to energy field

The following list shows a few examples of the kind of work you could be doing at this green career:

  • Research and development efforts at universities, national laboratories, and industry require chemists, agricultural specialists, microbiologists, biochemists, and engineers.

  • Engineers and construction workers are needed to design and build bioenergy plants, while electrical/electronic and mechanical technicians, engineers (mechanical, electrical, and chemical), mechanics, and equipment operators are needed to run and maintain them. Some want cross-training in engineering and biology, or chemistry and agriculture.

  • As the industry develops, farmers and foresters will be needed to produce and harvest biomass, and waste-management employees will be needed to collect and move waste materials.

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