Making a move in the new energy frontier

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There’s been quite a bit of attention on the topic of waste-to-energy lately, with a number of organisations making moves to either develop projects in this space or explore how they can be involved in this emerging sector.

To get the inside word on how the energy industry can best take advantage of the opportunities that come with waste-to-energy technology, we caught up with Gayle Sloan, CEO of the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia (WMRR).

Before talking about waste-to-energy projects, it’s useful to take a step back and think about how the waste management and resource recovery industry thinks about waste and the
way it is processed.

The key framework underpinning waste management policy and practice in Australia is the Waste Management Hierarchy. This hierarchy prioritises specific waste management processes over others.

It is based on environmental outcomes and ranks them in order of preference, from avoiding the creation of waste as the most desired outcome, and disposal to landfill as the least desired outcome.

Materials such as clean plastics and paper or cardboard, which are placed into residential yellow lidded and commercial bins, can be recycled. Green lidded bin material can also be recycled, through composting or digestion processes.

Currently in Australia however, red bin material is generally disposed of to landfill without additional value being recovered (other than landfill gas). It is at this stage that diverting this residual material to a waste-to-energy plant for energy recovery can provide better environmental outcomes.

Gayle Sloan, CEO of the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia (WMRR), is excited about the opportunities that will come with waste-to-energy technologies.

“There is a genuine role for waste-to-energy for dealing with those residual materials that we can’t get value from in other ways,” said Ms Sloan.

“Where I think it will be particularly effectively deployed is in the manufacturing sector, in places like paper mills, where they can develop an energy source that is quite complementary to their existing energy needs.”

For example, Australian Paper is proposing to construct a thermal waste-to-energy plant adjacent to its Maryvale Paper Mill site in the Latrobe Valley, Victoria.

This technology creates energy from the controlled combustion of non-hazardous waste materials that would otherwise go to landfill, with the end goal of meeting energy needs for their manufacturing processes while reducing their landfill to almost zero.

The proposed $600 million waste-to-energy plant would process up to 650,000 tonnes of residual municipal solid waste, as well as commercial and industrial waste.

It will allow Australian Paper to attain a sustainable, long-term and stable alternative baseload energy source to produce steam and electricity for the Maryvale Mill.

Diversion from landfill

As well as meeting the energy needs of proponents taking on waste-to-energy projects, these projects also have a significant role to play in diverting waste which would otherwise be going into landfill.

According to Ms Sloan, Australia’s policy settings require the diversion of approximately 80 per cent of waste that would have gone into landfill to other sources by 2030.

With our current national annual waste tally at approximately 67 million tonnes, this leaves about 12 million tonnes still going into landfill – a huge number in itself.

Ms Sloan estimates that waste-to-energy has the potential to reduce this figure of 12 million tonnes of waste in landfill by a considerable amount.

Where Ms Sloan says more work needs to be done in Australia is in the area of building community awareness and knowledge about these technologies, as well as ensuring that we gain the social licence to operate waste-to-energy plants.

“Waste-to-energy has not been widely deployed in Australia yet, whereas in other parts of the world, it’s a well-developed technology. One of the keys to achieving this will be building social licence and acceptance of these facilities.”

There are more than 2000 facilities operating safely across North America, Europe, Middle-East and Asia – with more than 200 of these constructed between 2011 and 2015.  

The energy can be created by a number of processes (thermal and non-thermal), including manufactured fuels derived from waste, anaerobic digestion, combustion and gasification.

“There’s definitely a perception around waste-to-energy that it’s not good. So we need to educate the market and the community that waste-to-energy is about complementing the existing energy source, and ultimately reducing reliance on it.”

Complementing existing operations

Apart from establishing the licence to operate, when looking at what the industry needs to consider next when it comes to the waste-to-energy sector, Ms Sloan urges the industry to think about the purpose of the energy developers might be looking to reinforce with a waste-to-energy product.

“If you look at a paper mill type product, they need energy, obviously, but they also need the heat, steam and water that is a by-product of the energy production process. So the energy production is quite a complementary process to their existing manufacturing processes.

“When you have the right type of waste, with the right calorific value – that’s where I see a lot of potential in this industry.”

With waste-from-energy becoming an emerging part of the waste recovery chain, as well as the energy industry, WMRR will be hosting their third bi-annual conference on the topic in Canberra from 26-28 August 2019.

For more information, head to the WMRR website: www.wmrr.asn.au

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