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How waste turns into energy. (wastetoenergyplan.com)

Currently, the District exports some 200,000 tons of residential trash a year out to a facility out in Lorton, Va., where it’s processed to create electricity through steam-powered wind turbines (which is better than D.C.’s earlier strategy of sending garbage to a landfill near Richmond). Fairfax County sells that electricity to Dominion Virginia Power, bringing in around $2.2 million annually.

Now, the District is wondering: Could we keep that revenue in the city?

According to Department of Public Works director Bill Howland, the city is studying the possibility of building our own waste-to-energy facility, and may or may not recommend it (plants were proposed in 1986 and 1994, but ultimately rejected). Sure, not trucking trash to Lorton would be a positive step, as would creating a new revenue stream. But on face, there are a couple problems with the idea.

One: D.C.’s a pretty dense place compared to Fairfax County, so it would be pretty hard to find an area where a large garbage processing facility wouldn’t piss off some neighbors enough to kill the project, or at least create environmental justice concerns, since the more industrial areas also tend to be the poorest. That’s what has kept New York City from building any plants, at least.

And two: Once you build a waste-to-energy plant, you have to feed it, which doesn’t exactly create a strong incentive for the District to reduce the amount of stuff it throws away. (Fairfax County took our garbage because the bad economy meant people produced less, and they have to keep the Lorton facility running pretty much at capacity). Environmentalists in Maryland think energy produced by waste isn’t as good as other renewable sources.

But waste-to-energy facilities aren’t all bad—-they’re a lot cleaner these days, and have become increasingly prevalent in Europe. If D.C. could find the cash to build a facility, and make sure it was as advanced as possible, it could be a win for the budget and the planet in the long term.