Waste to Energy – Energy: no time to waste

As concern over climate change, as well as long-term security of energy supply grows in Europe one thermal technology often overlooked could present a solution. Modern waste-to-energy technology’s potential contribution to the region’s environment and energy policies is highlighted.

Dr. Ella Stengler, CEWEP, Belgium

Waste to Energy (WtE) plants thermally treat household waste and waste similar to household waste that is not otherwise reusable or recyclable, and generate electricity and heat from it, which is delivered to homes and industry. Currently approximately 58.5 million tonnes of municipal waste is thermally treated each year in some 418 WtE plants in Europe.

Despite European Union (EU) policy to divert biodegradable waste from landfill, landfilling remains the dominant method for municipal solid waste (MSW). At present in the EU (EU-27) MSW is disposed of through landfilling (45 per cent), WtE (18 per cent), recycling and composting (37 per cent).

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According to the Landfill Directive 1999/31/EC, biodegradable municipal waste going to landfills must be reduced to 35 per cent of the total amount (base year 1995) by 2016 (by 2020 for the UK and other member states that were sending more than 80 per cent of their collected municipal waste to landfill in 1995). WtE, together with recycling and composting, could help to divert waste from landfills and at the same time reducing landfill methane emissions, thus contributing to climate protection.

However, there are many different reasons for landfilling’s continuing dominance, most notably the fact that in many countries landfilling is the cheapest way to dispose of waste and that investment costs for recycling and WtE plants are quite high. They need planning security and rely heavily on waste management policy (to divert waste from landfill1).

While separate collection and recycling of waste must be supported where environmentally and economically efficient, the remaining materials, which cannot be fully reused or recycled, should be treated in the most environmentally sound way. That means instead of simply disposing of waste on landfill, energy should be recovered from it.

In order to bring about sustainable waste management we need a combination of the complementary options of WtE, material recycling and biological treatment (composting and anaerobic digestion).

Climate protection

WtE plants deliver the electricity and heat generated from waste to households and industry, thus replacing the energy produced by conventional power plants, using fossil fuels. This is how they help to reduce CO2 emissions and reaching the aims of the Kyoto Protocol.

On the basis that about 58.5 million tonnes of MSW is annually treated in WtE plants across Europe then around 9.6 million tonnes of hard coal (emitting 27.2 million tonnes of CO2 emissions) or 8.1 billion m3 of natural gas (emitting 16 million tonnes of CO2 emissions) can be substituted. At the same time some 23.4 million MWh of electricity and 58.5 million MWh of heat can be generated from the waste, supplying 17.5 million inhabitants with electricity and 33.2 million inhabitants with heat. This is equivalent to supplying the entire population of Portugal, Estonia and Denmark with electricity and the entire population of Belgium, Hungary, Bulgaria and Norway with heat throughout the year.

According to the European directive on the promotion of electricity produced from Renewable Energy Sources 2001/77/EC (RES Electricity Directive), the biodegradable fraction of waste is considered biomass, and thus a renewable energy source. The biodegradable fraction in MSW is more than 50 per cent; according to a study by the àƒ—ko-Institut, it is 62 per cent2.

In practice, it differs from member state to member state how electricity from waste is supported and how the RES Electricity Directive is implemented. While a number of member states recognize waste as a renewable energy source, only a few really support it. Thus, the price that WtE plant operators receive for selling their electricity, ranges from the market price of around €0.035/kWh in Germany to €0.1/kWh which can be achieved with green certificates in the Flemish part of Belgium. In Hungary and Portugal, operators get about €0.07/kWh. Grid access plays an important role in supporting alternative energy sources.

There is considerable potential for WtE plants to contribute to climate protection through generating energy. But while the RES Electricity Directive applies this idea with regard to electricity, the heat sector is not covered within EU legislation. This should be considered in future EU legislation. The European Commission mentioned the potential of WtE in its Biomass Action Plan, which was published in December 2005 and in the autumn 2006 they held a consultation into a possible RES Heating and Cooling Directive. Renewable heating and cooling is mentioned within the context of the Energy Action Plan published in March 20073.

There is significant potential to produce heating, and possibly cooling in the future, in WtE plants4. This should be taken into account in future European energy legislation.

Security of supply

WtE technology is one of the most robust and effective alternative energy options to reduce CO2 emissions and to save limited fossil fuel resources.

Waste is widely available across the EU and WtE plants are therefore a reliable energy source providing an essential contribution to security of energy supply. It is also a cost effective way to reduce CO2. The cost to avoid 1 tonne of CO2 with WtE is about €435, whereas the costs to avoid 1 tonne of CO2 with (other) biomass are €80. For photovoltaic it would be more than €10006. While it is necessary to explore all alternative energy paths to move away from a high dependence on fossil fuels WtE clearly has a role to play alongside other technologies.

The WWF, Greenpeace and some other organizations do in fact take a quite pragmatic approach towards their vision to achieve a 2000-watt-society by 20507.

This includes a specific fee for electricity from renewable sources, starting with the use of the less costly options. The study gives priority to support energy from renewables in the following order: energy from waste treatment, biomass, wind, photovoltaic and geothermic as soon as technically available.

Europe’s waste policy

The review of the European Waste Framework Directive (WFD) is expected to have a major impact on future waste policy. The European Commission (EC) delivered in December 2005 a proposal for a new WFD, which will serve as a basis on which the waste management industry has to work during the next 20-30 years.

The EC is seeking to clarify definitions, amongst others of the distinction between “recovery” and “disposal”. It proposes that the principal of “replacement of resources” is still decisive for the definition of recovery. Clarifying the energy recovery status within the WFD is important for WtE plants because otherwise they would be consigned to the bottom of the waste hierarchy, alongside landfilling.

The definition, which is now proposed by the EC principally allows WtE plants to be classified as energy recovery facilities, if the energy efficiency criteria, described in Annex II (R1 formula), are fulfilled.

In February 2007, the European Parliament voted on the first reading of the WFD, and voted against the R1 formula. Although the R1 formula was deleted from Annex II, the definition they chose for energy recovery would cover WtE plants.

Currently, the directive is being discussed in the Council of Ministers of the member states. Germany, which holds the current presidency of the EU, aims to reach a common position on the text by the end of this month, when its presidency comes to an end. The WFD should then return to the European Parliament for a second reading in early 2008.

WtE debate needed

Modern WtE technology deserves a balanced debate, bearing in mind the contribution it can deliver in both environment and energy policy.

Setting specific standards for efficient energy recovery in the WFD and recognizing the WtE plants that meet these standards as recovery operations will provide an incentive to plant operators to further improve plant efficiency and to help to divert waste from landfills, thus contributing to climate protection and ensuring security of energy supply.

1. Overview of landfill bans and taxes in Europe, www.cewep.eu/storage/med/media/data/163_LandfillTaxesbansApril2007

2. Briefing paper on a study undertaken by the àƒ—ko-Institut Darmstadt on behalf of the German Waste-to-Energy association ITAD, English summary and link to study in German, hwww.cewep.eu/studies/climate-protection/art230,62.html

3. European Energy Action Plan, March 2007 www.consilium.europa.eu/ueDocs/cms_Data/docs/pressData/en/ec/93135.pdf

4. The ECOHEATCOOL project (www.euroheat.org/ecoheatcool/) investigated options for further expansion of district heating and cooling in Europe offering higher energy efficiency and higher security of supply with the benefit of lower carbon dioxide emissions. The ECOHEATCOOL project was co-financed by the European Commission Intelligent Energy Europe Programme.

5. EdDE-Dokumentation 10, project management by Prof. Bilitewski et al, Pirna, December 2005

6. Deloitte

7. Greenpeace study Energieperspektive 2050, April 2006, available in German from https://info.greenpeace.ch/de/klima/pressreleases/pr040506energieszenari

Dr Ella Stengler is CEWEP’s managing director. CEWEP, the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants, represents 338 WtE plants across Europe (80 per cent of the European market). For more information visit www.cewep.eu

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