Renewed interest in waste to energy

As residual waste growth continues to outstrip available landfill capacity, alternative waste management solutions such as waste from energy are becoming increasingly attractive for both governments and industry. 

Melbourne’s waste management industry has benefited from ample landfill capacity, relatively low disposal costs and low energy prices. But over the past few years, things have started to change.

As part of the effort to reduce waste in the region, the Victorian Government continues to increase the cost of disposal year on year in the form of the landfill levy.

Veolia General Manager Resource Recovery Tom Wetherill.

According to the Victorian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), from 2011-12 to 2014-15, the landfill levy for industrial waste disposal jumped from $44 to $58.50 a tonne – a 33 per cent increase.

Amplifying the problem is the imminent risk of a land fill capacity bottleneck, as new facility approvals can take up to five years to be processed.

Sustainability Victoria’s Statewide Waste and Resource Recovery Infrastructure Plan (SWRRIP) notes that operators need to consider the rate at which their remaining airspace will be depleted – in light of the EPA’s approvals process for new facilities.

Energy prices have also continued to rise, according to the Australian Energy Market Operator. The historical data on Victoria show the average annual price of electricity has risen from 27.09 per cent in 2011 to 55.47 per cent in 2017.

As a result, waste management in the state has hit a roadblock – more waste is facing less landfill capacity and increasing disposal and energy costs. But there is one solution that may just make a virtue out of necessity. Waste, water and energy company Veolia Australia and New Zealand (ANZ) is at the forefront of the developing sector, and sees potential for energy from waste (EfW) in the near future.

Veolia’s EfW scorecard

Veolia ANZ’s State Group General Manager Victoria and Tasmania Simon Tori says that due to landfill capacity availability, relatively low disposal costs and low energy prices, conditions were historically considered unfavourable for EfW projects.

But population growth that has resulted in higher quantities of waste being generated, increasing landfill disposal costs and an environmental agenda to divert waste from landfill have spurred an interest in EfW.

Types of EfW

Veolia breaks down EfW into four different forms, including landfill gas, anaerobic digestion, refuse-derived fuels and thermal treatment.

Landfill gas is an existing fuel source derived from most medium and large landfills in Australia. This involves the decomposition of organic material within landfills under anaerobic conditions (oxygen free), which produces landfill gas, comprising approximately 50 per cent methane – a potent greenhouse gas. The landfill gas can be recovered and used to generate electricity or displace an alternative fuel, such as natural gas.

“We ensure all of the landfill sites under our mandate operate to ‘best practice’ principles, which include the management and capture of landfill gas which is, where economically practical, then used to generate electricity or is used to displace natural gas,” Simon says.

Anaerobic digestion involves segregated collection and anaerobic digestion of organic waste to produce a compost product along with renewable electricity generation.

Veolia operates a number of anaerobic digestion plants, processing food/organic waste to create compost and bioenergy, as well as many biomass EfW plants, which produce electricity and heat from wood waste.

Refuse-derived fuels, although limited in Australia, is where alternative fuels are derived from waste. Many biogenic waste materials, including non-biodegradable plastics and textiles, can be extracted and converted into a fuel to replace fossil fuels in industrial applications.

Veolia operated a number of recycling facilities globally, which process commercial and industrial (C&I) waste to recover materials and produce a waste derived fuel. This fuel predominately comprises of plastics waste and is used to replace coal in the cement industry.

The fourth form of EfW, which currently also has a significant focus by industry, is direct combustion of waste by incineration – or thermal treatment. Large-scale facilities are designed specifically to treat mixed waste and release the inherent heat energy of waste to generate electricity.

With this in mind, Veolia General Manager Resource Recovery Tom Wetherill developed a set of criteria to assess the feasibility of new EfW projects in Australia. Tom says there are no such facilities operating in Australia, and estimates it could take up to eight to 10 years before a large-scale facility could be established in Victoria.

With more than 30 years’ experience in the field of solid waste management, Tom says the results provide an industry point of view on the feasibility of developing a large-scale EfW project from scratch. He works closely with Simon, who looks after all of the regions’ sales and operations across waste, water and energy management.

Tom says the methodology includes nine feasibility criteria, and the scoring ranges from 0 to 10. A score of 10 indicates that the criteria has been met (i.e. it exists) and has previously been completed in Australia. A score of 0 means that the criteria has not been met, does not exist or there is no opportunity and indicates a fatal flaw in the feasibility of a project. Scores between 1 and 9 can be allocated based on the status or degree of progress in achieving a specific goal. The score will give an indication of the situation or challenge and timeframe ahead.

Veolia’s feasibility criteria include regulatory barriers, the waste stream, site physical conditions, site community support, technology, product sales, residues management, environmental approvals, economics and nancing and then averages the numbers for an overall score.

Doing the numbers

Institutional framework

The institutional framework includes all levels of government and the EPA. While ranked positive in Victoria, it varies from state to state. With this in mind, Simon says the waste management industry needs to take a leadership role with local, state and federal governments to guide EfW providers towards sustainable and cost-effective solutions.

“Government, at its various levels, needs to show commitment and leadership in terms of strategy, policy, and the planning framework and provide certainty over the legislative environment governing the industry. This will create the certainty required by the industry to invest in what are significant long-term infrastructure projects.”

He notes that some of the barriers include commercial incentives, reliability and risk management and government policy.

“The commercial environment needs to provide the right incentives to make EfW competitive with the alternative disposal option for residual waste being landfill.

“High landfill costs through scarcity of supply (determined by state planning policy) or through taxation (i.e. levies) need to exist to allow EfW solutions to be cost comparative.”

Federal Government policy can also be a barrier, Simon adds, and a well-established policy framework on renewables is recommended to provide an incentive for projects.

The feasibility of large-scale EfW in Victoria as seen by Veolia

Institutional framework – 6/10: Positive outlook
Waste stream – 5/10: Work in progress
Site physical conditions: 6/10: Work in progress/positive outlook
Site community support: 2/10: Challenges accepted
Technology: Equipment: 9/10 Delivery: 5/10 Total: 7/10: Technology exists (overseas) but the delivery in Australia is untested
Product sales: 5/10
Residues management: 4/10
Environmental approvals: 3/10
Economics/ financing: 4/10
Overall score: 42/90: 47 per cent

Presented at the 2017 Australian Waste to Energy Forum, Tom says the scorecard received positive feedback from attendees.

To read more, see page 14 of Issue 12.

Featured image: Veolia ANZ State Group General Manager Victoria and Tasmania Simon Tori