Energy from waste – getting it off the ground
It has only been in the last 20 years that Australia’s priority, as a country, has transitioned from waste management to resource recovery. Australia has historically had plentiful landfill capacity, but with increasing urban density and populations, landfill airspace in cities such as Sydney is rapidly reducing.
At the same time, communities are increasingly looking for ways to put their waste to good use and divert waste from landfill. In Western Australia, Perth is Australia’s fastest growing capital city and the state government has introduced ambitious waste diversion targets. In Victoria, it’s unlikely that any new landfills will be permitted in the metropolitan area under the state’s waste infrastructure plan.
This all adds up to a clear opportunity to bring EfW technology to Australia. EfW facilities are commonplace across Europe and the US, as well as in Asian countries such as Japan, China and Singapore. Joyanne Manning, associate principal, Planning and Management at Arup, believes Australia has a huge advantage as it moves into EfW because we have the ability to learn from global experiences, and bring those experts to Australia.
“Europe is 20 years in front of Australia, so we can look to the proven and ready access to data from the plants there,” said Manning. She also notes that the markets where EfW is commonplace are now overly saturated and this makes Australia an appealing place to turn to.
A HOLISTIC APPROACH
During the panel discussion at Waste 2016, Dr Chindarat Taylor, founder and director, Resource Efficiency Pathway, UK and Thailand, highlighted that there are many EfW projects in the pipeline right across the world, but only a fraction of proposals are successful as they use a holistic approach to drive their proposal. “There are four interdependent factors that make up the holistic approach to a successful project: technical, political, regulatory and economical.”
In order to make a project appealing, there needs to be stable and clear government policy and regulations in order to gain the confidence and momentum for long-term investment. “The business case and return on investment needs to be solid in order to stack up and create the basis for a successful project,” said Taylor.
The panel agreed that companies proposing a development also need to have a good track record
and proven success in delivering EfW projects. Validity of global credibility and expertise is crucial when introducing a new technology in a new market.
THE MAJOR CHALLENGE
The most challenging part of an EfW proposal is securing the feedstock and supply of waste for infrastructure of this size. Companies need to effectively pitch the benefits of EfW technology to a local market, subsequently locking in the needed tonnages to get a facility off the ground.
Without the volumes of waste, the project is unlikely to receive the financial backing it requires to be built.
Simon Currie, global head of energy, Norton Rose Fulbright, proposed building smaller plants as part of a broader energy resource recovery park. He said having an EfW facility as part of the life cycle of waste supports the circular economy and would cement energy recovery’s place in Australia’s waste hierarchy.
Currie said EfW is more than just a new solution to Australia’s waste-space problem.
“The resource boom is over,” he said. Acknowledging that investment banks and superannuation funds are jumping on board with financing green projects, promoting sustainability in Australia, Currie said debt is the cheapest it has ever been in Australia for projects of this size.
JUMPING THROUGH HOOPS
SUEZ has been involved in more than 60 EfW projects around the world and is actively scoping opportunities in Australia. SUEZ executive director – Development, Performance and Innovation, Emmanuel Vivant, said the current policy statement laid out by the New South Wales Environmental Protection Agency (NSW EPA) is very restrictive.
“To underwrite an EfW facility we need significant long-term contracts and partnerships that are at least 20 to 25 years with significant feedstock. There is currently no appeal, or way to directly contract a NSW local council directly to an EfW facility.”
This is because, under the current NSW regulations, municipal solid waste found in Sydney’s red bins needs to be pre-processed in an Advanced Resource Recovery Technology facility, for example, with only the residual waste then able to go on to be treated at an EfW facility.
Henry Moore, NSW EPA waste manager, acknowledged there may be an issue with the current NSW policy reflecting the existing waste hierarchy, rather than the alternative, which includes energy recovery.
“Energy recovery is viewed as something that should be done to the residual waste faction prior to landfill. More priority should be placed on reuse, recycle and avoidance around resource recovery before energy recovery comes into the mix,” Moore said.
In comparison, Western Australia is focusing on taking the red bin directly to an EfW facility, as is the case in Europe. The more supportive EfW regulations in WA is perhaps why there are currently more projects there than in any other state.
Brian Callander, CEO of Mindarie Regional Council, started scoping the idea of building an EfW facility as a means to achieving WA’s ambitious waste target of 65 percent diversion by 2020.
Callander explained that as part of the waste audit conducted to scope the future waste infrastructure for the Council, they wanted to ensure the right steps were in place from the beginning, with their biggest priority being community engagement.
“We want to make sure the community has the ability to be well-informed before it starts making decisions on whether an EfW plant is good, bad or indifferent,” he said.
COMMUNITY UNDERSTANDING AND CONSULTATION ARE CRUCIAL
NSW’s last incinerator closed in the mid-1990s due to community outcry. Moore suggested this was because of a lack of education and awareness about what an EfW facility actually did.
The panel agreed that significant engagement with communities needs to occur early on in the proposal stages of an EfW facility development. Without taking the community on the journey, private enterprise will always face the harsh attitudes of ‘not in my backyard’.
The complete opposite could be seen in Europe, with local communities in Denmark having campaigned for an EfW facility to be built in their community. This facility then guaranteed cheaper energy and, more specifically, hot water all year round.
Vivant suggested that Australia needs to focus on the future of EfW instead of comparing how this technology has been used in the past. He said technology has changed dramatically since the 1990s.
“The circular economy is here,” he said. “We need to refocus the discussion from an alternative waste disposal facility to a guaranteed source of clean energy that closes the loop and redefines the waste hierarchy.” Looking forward, there is an appetite in the community to change its attitude towards waste recovery; it just requires consultation.
Moore highlighted that there is always more the regulator can do and that the NSW EPA “will engage, have been engaged and [will] continue to be engaged in the community as part of the EfW dialogue”.