Sorting the waste to energy mess

man leaning on fence

Sorting the waste to energy mess.

TALKING RUBBISH: The Clean Energy Finance Corporation recently estimated a national pipeline of up to $7.8 billion in new investments in resource recovery, bioenergy and WTE in the period to 2025; employment benefits of up to 9,000 construction jobs, 2600 indirect jobs and as many as 1400 direct and ongoing jobs, and; the potential across those categories to reduce landfill emissions by as much as 60 per cent.

“The main issue facing the waste-to-energy (WTE) industry is a lack of understanding about who we are and what we do. Our main challenge is to educate the community about WTE as there is a natural fear of things we don’t understand,” Jason Pugh, General Manager of Perth’s East Rockingham WTE project, recently said.

So, Talking Rubbish here takes up the challenge with a look at the state of play of WTE in Australia.

Even a quick look shows that WTE or EfW (energy-from-waste) or RDF (refuse-derived fuel) or ERF (energy recovery facilities) or several other monikers – which actually do mean different things – has come to a big roundabout.

And that roundabout is busy as everybody leaving Sydney for the coast at school holidays (before COVID, that is). Here are some of the many entrances and exits that require navigation:

Different technological approaches, ranging from waste incineration of large scale municipal solid waste (MSW) volumes to bespoke solutions for specific wastes, like “unusable” waste paper and secondary plastics from commercial and industrial (C&I) sites into a more renewable fuel for a cement kiln.

Indeed, when we broadly say “WTE”, it’s vital to note that there are dozens of different technological options for different waste streams from which different energy applications can be serviced.

A recent Senate report, for example, noted that “energy from waste is an ambiguous term that refers to a number of quite different processes, some of which are inherently more environmentally beneficial than others.”

A public decision-making context where the National Waste Policy accepts a role for WTE within the waste minimisation hierarchy and to meet the goal, of 80 per cent waste diversion, and every state and territory (except NT and Tasmania) has developed at least draft rules for WTE’s use.

What’s common here is that WTE is meant to be complementary of reduction, reuse and recycling and, essentially, a final and better alternative to landfill disposal. That plays out in specific provisions like a proposed cap of one million tonnes per year in Victoria or NSW’s distinction that only residual waste from MSW food, organics and garden organics (FOGO) collection systems and C&I generators with effective source separation is eligible.

There are now major operational facilities for WTE under construction in Australia, including two in Perth for some 700,000 tonnes of MSW per year; some estimate that there are up to 400 potential future projects of various scale and type to be had. In NSW alone, eight projects appear on the Department of Planning’s Major Projects website and are at some stage in the development/approval process, including legal appeals.

Companies involved include: Veolia (at its existing Woodlawn facility in the Goulburn district); Re-Group (with Energy Australia at the existing Mount Piper Power Station in the Lithgow district); respective proposals for western Sydney by former Dial-a-Dump boss Ian Malouf’s Next Generation and an alliance between multi-national Cleanaway and Macquarie Capital, and; a proposal lodged just last month by new entrant Jerrarra Power for a Southern Tablelands facility featuring Hitachi Zosen Inova (HZI) moving grate combustion technology.

The total value of the eight major NSW proposals alone is likely to be well over $2 billion. That’s in the context of a recently released report by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (a financier of WTE and other resource recovery projects) that estimated a national pipeline of up to $7.8 billion in new investments in resource recovery, bioenergy and WTE in the period to 2025; employment benefits of up to 9000 construction jobs, 2600 indirect jobs and as many as 1400 direct and ongoing jobs, and; the potential across those categories to reduce landfill emissions by as much as 60 per cent.

A real insight is offered by Veolia Australia’s chief executive officer Richard Kirkman, who has long term experience of WTE in Europe and the UK and this week told Talking Rubbish:

“It’s so important for Australia to understand the subtlety that ERF is for recovery of non-recyclable waste, is better than landfill, is one of the many pathways to green hydrogen from waste, and is safe. We operate 65 such plants overseas and they are state of the art.”

Kirkman suggests a powerful and logical positioning of WTE for the future.

It’s needed if WTE in Australia is to clear hurdles and improve on the current rate of 3 per cent energy recovery from the total 74 million tonnes of waste annually generated.

By way of context, within Australia’s 3 per cent energy , 4/5th is currently methane extraction from landfills. Or another tit-bit: Sweden, which sends less than 1 per cent of its waste to landfill, has more than 30 current WTE plants for household rubbish.

The hurdles:

Hurdle 1: Trust the Punters. If it’s tough to achieve approval for a regular recycling facility – and it is – it’s even harder to get a level of community acceptance of a WTE facility. As one example, Ian Malouf’s proposal – featuring technology that’s long established in Europe and which has taken community consultation very seriously – has been active in some form since 2013. That’s longer than it usually takes to get from go to whoa on a mine.

For mine, the answer here isn’t just about better public relations which tries to sell” the community on the safety and benefits of WTE. That kind of one-way communication is dead as a do-do in an age where the community is highly informed and highly capable. Rather, now is the time for proponents to build long-term, inclusive relationships with hosts and to build in guarantees – such as environmental bonds for community health – that mitigate proposals’ risks.

If WTE proponents truly trust the safety of their facilities from an air emissions standpoint, for example, they should have no problem putting up the money to back their claims. That kind of technological and governance trust earns community trust.

Moreover, WTE proponents now also have to work super-duper-extra hard to show how their respective approaches fit within the circular economy concept, as some could credibly argue that -in some formations for some potentially recoverable material – WTE can become an output rather than an input.

Hurdle 2: I’m From the government and I’m Here to Help. If we take a look at the two facilities now under construction in Western Australia, a key success factor has been the active support of the state government. Indeed, it was Premier McGowan himself who announced the okay for the East Rockingham facility.

Here again, WTE proponents need to step up. Compared to other high-intensity sectors, the waste and resource recovery industry has simply not invested in regulatory and governmental affairs over the years. Too many operators see contact with government and regulation as something to minimise, for example, a compliance activity.

And for the many associations in the waste biz, there’s not a well-recognised and dedicated WTE industry voice to represent its shared interests to governments (which is the subject of negative feedback by policy makers).

If WTE players were smarter, they would recognise that the 21st century requires them to not only meet the expectations of regulators, but to exceed them if they wish to see their proposals progress.

One example is the NSW EPA’s recent update of its EfW policy to reflect the latest air emissions advice from the NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer. It is aimed at exceeding world best practice, including a requirement for life-cycle analysis of proposed WTE facilities.

However, as a recent PWC report argues, authorities cannot expect to pass all risk to proponents if they want to share in the clear benefits of WTE. The public sector can step up with aspects like local government and state government cooperation in ensuring supply, providing appropriate land-use categories, and having clear regulatory and strategic planning frameworks.

Hurdle 3: It’s about kilowatts not tonnes. Most WTE proponents professionally come from the W side (waste) of WTE rather than the E side (energy). A quick look at the senior management of one proponent in NSW shows more than 100 years of combined senior experience in waste management and basically zero when it comes to energy and especially renewable energy.

This sort of “professional bias” leads to different technological choices, different approaches to regulators and the community, and different business cases that can emphasise diversion from landfill rather than turning on the lights.

The more clever WTE operators are now seeing that success lies less in “trucks and tonnes” and more in smart energy plays, such as industrial co-generation, alternative and more sustainable fuels for both domestic and international energy generation (such as large-scale current investment in tyre-derived fuel by), co-location on established energy facilities, and solutions for specific waste streams, such as converting residual organics into biomass into renewable hydrogen.

For example, a recent cutting-edge paper for ACOR by Matthew Warren, probably Australia’s leading energy policy strategist and author, determined that WTE can be complementary to the transition to a mainly renewable energy grid.

Namely, because it’s not reliant on natural elements and has a steady rate of supply, WTE has real potential for maintaining inertia in a grid built on solar, wind and other renewable sources. So, WTE masterminds are wise to look at those kind of sustainable but potentially lucrative niche opportunities.

This article was originally published by The Fifth Estate, for additional information visit:


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