The first rule of waste to energy: Is it feasible?

April 1st, 2015, Published in Articles: Energize


South Africa’s power supply is taking strain and with the country’s grid nearing peak demand, an intervention is needed. To this end, several alternatives are being explored but there is a growing need for more sustainable methods of power generation and demand side management. 

Dr. Urishanie Govender

Dr. Urishanie Govender

According to the National Waste Information Baseline Report, of the total 108-million tonnes of waste, 90% goes to landfills. As a result South Africa’s landfills quickly run out of space and a viable solution presents itself in the form of waste to energy.

Waste to energy is a proven and environmentally sound process that provides sustainable recovery of energy. South Africa should look to the East and West for working examples of waste to energy programmes. The technology is used extensively in Europe and developed nations in Asia such as Russia, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan.  Interestingly, every ton of solid waste processed in a waste to energy facility avoids the mining of one third ton of coal and its associated impacts. While there is a strong case for waste to energy in South Africa, before any projects get underway, a bankable feasibility study needs to be conducted.

The consultancy is currently involved with two waste to energy projects in the country. Informed feasibility studies are conducted to determine what alternative technologies will be best suited according to the waste characterisation. The cost of equipment is weighed up against the proposed output of energy, the quality of the off-takers, potential benefits from the carbon savings and the value the company places on energy security.

Actually conducting a waste characterisation study is no easy feat as landfill sites do not accurately monitor their waste streams. Consultants analyse the site and compile detailed studies of what waste streams actually go into the site. After the waste has been characterised, it then follows a waste hierarchy process, where reusing and recycling become higher priorities.

At the moment, our landfills don’t tend to recycle, which is always the first step. So once you have reused and recycled what you can and implemented a system to do that continuously, only then can you determine what kind of waste you have to work with, and thus, which technology is most suitable to produce energy.

The issue is that most private firms and municipalities have hurdle rates for their capex projects, so due diligence needs to take its course. Solid waste management funding is a major challenge for waste projects in this space.

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