Explained | Why do so many waste-to-energy plants fail?

Anything short of the unwavering support of a municipality, its residents, and the State, and a waste-to-energy plant will become infeasible.

March 16, 2023 10:30 am | Updated March 21, 2023 04:20 pm IST

A view of a waste-to-energy plant in Dundigal, Telangana.

A view of a waste-to-energy plant in Dundigal, Telangana. | Photo Credit: Arrangement

The Kerala government recently announced the State’s first waste-to-energy project in Kozhikode. The planned facility is expected to be built in two years and generate about 6 MW of power.

There are around 100 waste-to-energy projects around the country but only a handful of them are operational, thanks to various production and operation challenges.

Waste-processing infrastructure is a good way to deal with the mountains of waste that Indian cities produce – but to succeed, such projects need the unwavering support of the municipality, its residents, and the State.

What do waste-to-energy projects do?

Waste-to-energy projects use non-recyclable dry waste to generate electricity. The process increases the State’s power generation capacity and eases the solid waste management (SWM) burden.

Generally, solid waste in India is 55-60% biodegradable organic waste, which can be converted into organic compost or biogas; 25-30% non-biodegradable dry waste; and around 15% silt, stones, and drain waste.

Of the non-biodegradable dry waste, only 2-3% – including hard plastics, metals, and e-waste – is recyclable. The remainder consists of low-grade plastic, rags, and cloth that can’t be recycled. This fraction of the non-recyclable dry waste is the most challenging portion of the present SWM system; the presence of these materials also reduces the efficiency of recycling other dry and wet waste.

Waste-to-energy plants use this portion to generate power. The waste is combusted to generate heat, which is converted into electricity.

Waste-to-energy plants in major cities could also consume a portion of the non-recyclable dry waste generated in urban local bodies (ULBs) nearby.

What is the economics of the Kozhikode project?

The total quantity of municipal solid waste generated in Kerala is approximately 8,000 tonnes per day (TPD). Of this, about 3,755 TPD is generated by the state’s 93 ULBs.

Kozhikode has a population of about 6.3 lakh and generates approximately 300 TPD of waste. Of this, around 205 TPD is biodegradable and 95 TPD is non-biodegradable.

The municipality is currently managing the biodegradable material to generate organic compost in various composting plants. The centralised composting plant at Njeliyamparamba processes about 100 tonnes of biodegradable waste to generate organic compost.

Of the non-biodegradable waste, only about 5 TPD out of the 95 TPD is recycled; the remaining non-recyclable dry waste could be used to generate power at the waste-to-energy plant.

Why do waste-to-energy plants often fail?

While waste-to-energy plants seem like a simple solution, they have several challenges en route to becoming feasible.

First is the low calorific value of solid waste in India due to improper segregation. The calorific value of mixed Indian waste is about 1,500 kcal/kg, which is not suitable for power generation. (Coal’s calorific value is around 8,000 kcal/kg.) Biodegradable waste has high moisture content and can’t be used for power generation; it should be composted instead.

The calorific value of segregated and dried non-recyclable dry waste is much higher, at 2,800-3,000 kcal/kg, sufficient to generate power. However, segregation (ideally at the source, if not at the processing plant) should be streamlined to ensure the waste coming to the facility has this calorific value.

Second is the high costs of energy production. The cost of generating power from waste is around Rs 7-8/unit, while the cost at which the States’ electricity boards buy power from coal, hydroelectric, and solar power plants is around Rs 3-4/unit. While State electricity boards are considering purchasing power from newer renewable energy sources like waste-to-energy, the price of the power generated needs to halve.

Third: Many waste-to-energy projects have failed because of improper assessments, high expectations, improper characterisation studies, and other on-ground conditions.

The quantity of waste generated by cities varies due to multiple factors, including season, rainfall, and the floating population. Importantly, waste-to-energy projects can consume only non-recyclable dry waste, which is about 25% of the waste; they are expected to only use segregated non-recyclable dry waste as well, which is the only type of waste with a sufficiently high calorific value.

But in reality, these projects are often expected to manage all types of waste generated in the city, which is only bad for the projects.

How can the plant overcome these challenges?

Kozhikode’s projected population and waste generation rate could avail around 100 TPD of non-recyclable dry waste to generate power. The proposed plant could absorb another 40-50 tonnes of such waste from nearby ULBs. But this quantity of material, around 150 TPD, will be available only when the people follow strict segregation practices and also process biodegradable waste.

Typically, waste-to-energy projects consume 50 TPD of material to generate 1 MW of power. At this rate, the potential to generate power from Kozhikode’s and other ULBs’ waste is around 3 MW. A higher capacity than this, such as the planned 6 MW, will be risky because enough material may not be available.

Operating waste-to-energy projects also depends on parameters like the municipal collection efficiency, waste segregation, moisture content, and the operational efficiency of existing biodegradable-waste-processing plants. If these plants have operational woes (as is common), the nature of waste will change drastically to have high moisture content and low calorific value, which will compromise power generation.

Setting up waste-to-energy projects is complex and needs the full support of the municipality, the State and the people. To overcome its various challenges, the municipality must ensure that only non-biodegradable dry waste is sent to the plant and separately manage the other kinds of waste.

Importantly, the municipality or the department responsible for SWM should be practical about the high cost of power generation, and include the State electricity department, perhaps as a tripartite agreement between the municipality, the plant operator, and the power distribution agency. It is also crucial to conduct field studies and learn from the experience of other projects.

Without all these efforts, the project may not be a success, which in turn will stress the State government to manage all the accumulated waste, which can be a costly mistake.

Pushkara S.V. is a practitioner at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. He has provided advisory services on solid waste management to 75 urban local bodies on waste management and has headed operations at a 750-tonne-capacity waste processing facility.

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