Can Burning Rubbish Power Australia and Help the Environment? 2

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Monday, May 4th, 2015
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Burning household rubbish to make electricity is both environmentally responsible and economically viable.

Energy from waste (EFW) has taken hold in Europe and the US and Nathan Lim, of Australian Ethical Investment, believes it could cut Australia’s dependence on landfill and fossil fuels, reduce the nation’s carbon footprint and provide renewable baseload power.

In Australia, EFW is confined mainly to small-scale harvesting methane from landfill but large-scale municipal waste incinerators are powering ahead overseas.

These work like a coal-fired plant but burn rubbish to create steam that drives electricity turbines.

Landfill is in short supply, and Lim says federal statistics show Australians produce 48 million tonnes of rubbish a year – 2.2 tonnes per person – with that amount growing 40 per cent a year faster than the population.

Our pre-sorting recycling programs could aid our embrace of EFW, he says.

“I think that is a precursor to having good energy from waste, because what you don’t want to do is simply take all your trash and burn it all. All the wet waste, and recyclables like plastics. That’s very wasteful,” he said.

Lim said Germans create 4.6 tonnes of rubbish per person per year but, through means including incineration for energy, Germany recycles 91 per cent of its waste.

Lim said a tour of an EFW plant in the US opened his eyes to EFW potential in Australia.

The plant, operated by the Covanta Holding Corporation in Essex, New Jersey, incinerates 250 tonnes of waste a day to make baseload electricity for 45,000 homes.

Trucks pile burnable waste up to 20 metres high through doors into a vast holding room the length of a football field.

Bulldozers push the rubbish into the incinerator.

The incinerator’s combustion draws air through the doors, across the rubbish and into the fire, eliminating odour.

Despite burning the rubbish, Lim said EFW reduces carbon emissions.

“Because you are converting waste from landfills, it is considered to have negative carbon emissions by avoiding the release of methane from landfill.”

EFW INCINERATORS VERSUS LANDFILL

  • NSW alone produces 4.8 million tonnes of rubbish (municipal solid waste) a year, with 43 per cent going straight to landfill
  • This amount of rubbish could feed an EFW incinerator the size of the Covanta plant in New Jersey
  • Under its contract, Covanta charges $US150 per tonne of municipal solid waste and also sells the electricity it produces
  • Covanta has committed $100 million to upgrade its plant
  • In NSW, assuming a $34 per megaWatt hour credit for electricity (the average wholesale price in NSW last year) a Covanta-style plant could charge $160 a tonne for waste delivered to it
  • The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage reports the average landfill gate fee in NSW was $195 per tonne
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  1. David Hall

    What is not mentioned is what the cost would be to build such a large facility in say Sydney, let alone how long it would take to get all the approvals.
    I believe a practical solution for Australia is to go for smaller scale "distributed" EfW plants that can be sited at recycling or landfill facilities and thus reduce the cost of transporting waste to what for Australia would be large EfW plants.
    We can do this and one of the secrets is to use "Western technology but at Asian pricing."

    • Nathan Lim

      The example was aimed at only demonstrating what could be done in NSW. You are correct in that it would be more sensible to have smaller plants to minimise transport cost. Mind you, the plants could not be too small otherwise the economics fall over.