How Can Waste-to-energy Technology Help Developing Countries?

In the last two years, I have been in India, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan – unquestionably impressive and exciting countries. But I also saw firsthand, how these countries struggle with accumulated mountains of municipal waste and all related problems such as critical hygienic conditions, stench or insects. So why don't we turn these mountains of trash into real cash?

For example, Cairo produces 15000 tons of municipal waste per day, which means 5.4 million tons of municipal waste every year. This fact always has been seen as a serious problem by the government in Egypt, and it induces immense costs for burning and eliminating the waste. Not to mention indirect caused costs like the treatment of respiratory diseases. However, this huge amount of waste could produce 7.5 TWh*, which exceeds the whole electricity consumption of Luxemburg in 2016 and is almost equal to the whole electricity consumption of Kenya in 2014.

At the same time, converting the trash into energy could reduce the oil bill for those countries which need to import oil.

Do we talk about a problem or about an opportunity?

This is just one example which we can see overall in the developing countries. The available technologies today allow us turning this serious problem into a real chance, and turning this mountain of trash into real cash.

There are several proven technologies for making it happen. The most used one is the incineration technology: It starts with pre-treatment of the waste, then burning it in a grate boiler generating heat which we can use to generate steam. This steam can utilize a steam turbine which drives a generator to produce electricity or controlled steam for industrial usage. For example ~ 10 Mtoe* of primary energy was produced by the combustion of renewable municipal waste in the European Union in 2016.

The produced energy will support the emerging industrial infrastructures in developing countries and enhance the local societies to generate business and to combat unemployment and poverty. Furthermore, it will help these countries to reduce their oil bill.

We have the technologies and we have the waste. What are we waiting for? Why do we not see these facilities everywhere in developing countries?

There are several challenges which we should overcome in order to enable this shift:

  1. Waste is, for now, a liability. The revenue streams for large-scale municipal WtE (waste-to-energy) facilities from selling energy, cannot cover their costs. Thus, the tipping fees are a key source of revenue for viable operation of a WtE facility. Another option is to guaranty a high FiT (Feed-in-Tariff). These should be regulated by government to create a viable basis for WtE industry. Therefore, the regulatory framework is always the first step to create this market.
  2. Developing countries will need customized solutions, which consider their local conditions. Avoiding copy/paste of the facilities in EU is crucial. For example, all WtE facilities in India up to 2003 failed. Key reason among others: copying the European models without considering the local reality in depth. E.g., the size of the facility is related to the available infrastructure and its capabilities. Furthermore, in India, Middle East, Latin America and Africa, there is no need for district heating as in Germany or in Scandinavia, but there is a need for district cooling. In Saudi Arabia, Jordan or in Egypt, it is possible to desalinate the sea water by using the heat generated by incinerated waste.
  3. The financial aid is also a considerable hurdle. We should look for attractive financing models to enable such projects in low income countries.

Depending on the local reality, it is possible to combine a WtE facility with a gas power plant or with a biomass power plant to achieve a feasible economically operating basis. Over the last years, Siemens gained huge experiences in dealing with all these challenges and models. Siemens mission is to help solving the challenge of growing waste by providing technologies, equipment, and services which convert the waste into fuel to produce valuable energy.

With our partners, we offer a broad portfolio to consult for governmental entities on the regulations aspects, or to support in the conception phase to help IPPs (Independent Power Producer) and municipalities to select the right concepts creating value for owners and for the local societies at the same time. We can support with financing aid and deliver world-class equipment for WtE projects.

- With considering the following assumptions: Average waste heat contents 7,2 MJ/kg, and overall power plant efficiency of 25%.

- Mtoe: Million tonne of oil equivalent

Source: Siemens

Author: Ghiath Bilal