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Air Emission Reduction Benefits of Biogas Electricity Generation at Municipal Wastewater Treatment Plants

Gingerich, Daniel B., Mauter, Meagan S.
Environmental science & technology 2018 v.52 no.3 pp. 1633-1643
air, anaerobic digestion, biogas, carbon dioxide, climate, combustion, digestion, economic sustainability, electricity, electricity generation, emissions, green infrastructure, heat, human health, municipal wastewater, pollutants, sludge, wastewater treatment, United States
Conventional processes for municipal wastewater treatment facilities are energy and materially intensive. This work quantifies the air emission implications of energy consumption, chemical use, and direct pollutant release at municipal wastewater treatment facilities across the U.S. and assesses the potential to avoid these damages by generating electricity and heat from the combustion of biogas produced during anaerobic sludge digestion. We find that embedded and on-site air emissions from municipal wastewater treatment imposed human health, environmental, and climate (HEC) damages on the order of $1.63 billion USD in 2012, with 85% of these damages attributed to the estimated consumption of 19 500 GWh of electricity by treatment processes annually, or 0.53% of the US electricity demand. An additional 11.8 million tons of biogenic CO₂ are directly emitted by wastewater treatment and sludge digestion processes currently installed at plants. Retrofitting existing wastewater treatment facilities with anaerobic sludge digestion for biogas production and biogas-fueled heat and electricity generation has the potential to reduce HEC damages by up to 24.9% relative to baseline emissions. Retrofitting only large plants (>5 MGD), where biogas generation is more likely to be economically viable, would generate HEC benefits of $254 annually. These findings reinforce the importance of accounting for use-phase embedded air emissions and spatially resolved marginal damage estimates when designing sustainable infrastructure systems.