Garbage management: Is waste-to-energy plants a feasible option?

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Updated: February 13, 2019 6:15:22 PM

WTE plants have a role, but not in the way our planners are envisaging. They should be the last resort to manage high-calorific-value waste that cannot be managed by other technologies.

As our population and economy grows, so will our waste.

Urban India currently produces around 1.5 lakh tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) every day. Of this, only about 25% is processed, i.e, recycled, composted or converted into biogas or electricity. The remainder finds its way into dump sites or is burned in open areas. Because of increasing population and affluence, MSW generation is estimated to reach a staggering 4.5 lakh tonnes per day by 2030. How will our cities manage this gargantuan amount of waste, considering that they struggle to manage even the current quantities?

The go-to answer for city planners and policymakers is to burn MSW in waste-to-energy (WTE) plants. The logic put forth to support this technology is that instead of spending time and resources in segregating waste, the best way is to collect unsegregated waste and process them in WTE plants using incineration, pyrolysis or plasma heating to produce electricity or oil. Companies are offering this as a miracle solution to cities across the country. The government seems to have bought this logic as well and has big plans to set up WTE plants. For instance, Niti Aayog has, under the Swachh Bharat Mission, set a target of constructing 800 megawatt (MW) of WTE plants by 2018–19, which is ten times the capacity of all the existing WTE plants put together. It also proposes setting up a Waste-to-Energy Corporation of India, which would construct incineration plants through PPP models. Currently, there are 40-odd WTE plants at various stages of construction.

To meet these targets, several subsidies are given to WTE plants. The ministry of new and renewable energy (MNRE) offers financial incentives by way of interest subsidy to reduce the rate of interest to 7.5%. In addition, financial incentives are provided to urban local bodies (ULBs) for supplying garbage free of cost at the project site and for providing land at a nominal rent. There are also incentives for preparing feasibility reports and for promotion, coordination and monitoring of projects. Concessional custom duty is imposed on imported parts. All put together, these subsidies/incentives take care of about 40% of the project cost.

Despite all these plans and subsidies, the big questions for the country are: How feasible are these plants and will they solve our waste problems?

WTE is not a new technology. The first WTE plant came up in Timarpur in Delhi in 1987. It was designed to incinerate 300 tonnes of waste per day (TPD). But it failed and was shut down soon after. Since then, 14 more WTE plants of 130 MW capacity have been installed in the country. Out of these, seven plants with capacity of 66 MW are closed and the remaining seven plants are operational. So, half of all the WTE plants constructed have closed down. The remaining plants are also under scrutiny for environmental violations. In fact, citizen movements against WTE plants are rising. For example, there have been continual protests against the Okhla WTE plant in Delhi for polluting the environment. In 2016, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) slapped an environmental compensation fine of  Rs 25 lakh on this plant.

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So, why are WTE plants not working in India when they are doing reasonably well in developed countries like Germany and Sweden? In fact, Sweden buys waste from other European countries to burn it in its WTE plants. The fundamental factor is the quality and composition of waste. MSW in India has low calorific value and high moisture content. As most of the waste is unsegregated, it also has high content of inert materials like soil, sand, grit, etc. This waste is not suitable for burning in WTE plants. To burn it, additional fuel is required, which increases the cost of operations as well as pollution. This has been the main reason why WTE plants in Kanpur, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Vijayawada, Karimnagar, etc., had to be closed down.

The second reason for WTE plants not working well in India is the economics of these plants. Despite all the subsidies, the electricity produced from WTE plants is the most expensive. Compared to Rs 3-4 per kWh from coal and solar plants, WTE plants sell electricity at about Rs 7/kWh. Discoms are not interested in buying such expensive electricity when cheaper electricity is available. In fact, if subsidies are removed, the electricity produced from these plants will simply not be affordable.

The third reason is the environmental and health impacts of WTE plants. Experiences across the country indicate that these plants are not able to meet environmental norms. The reason again seems to be the highly variable and poor quality of waste which the plants are not able to burn properly. As they have to handle vast quantities of mixed waste, the housekeeping is extremely challenging, leading to odour and visual pollution. This has led to the NIMBY (not in my backyard) syndrome. People do not want smelly and polluting plants near their homes. In addition, WTE plants have to reject about 30-40% of the waste—which they dump into landfills—because it is either inert or of too poor quality to be combustible. So, WTE plants do not eliminate the need for landfills, though they reduce the quantity of waste sent there.

In sum, the reason why WTE plants don’t work in India is because the type of waste we are planning to feed—mixed waste—is unsuitable for this technology. But this doesn’t mean that there is no case for WTE plants in India. There is, but it is not for burning mixed waste. The Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, spell out clearly that only segregated non-recyclable high-calorific fractions like used rubber tyres, multilayer plastics, discarded textile and paper, etc., are sent to WTE plants. Of the 1.5 lakh tonnes of MSW generated every day, only about 15% can be classified as non-biodegradable, non-recyclable, high-calorific-value waste. This translates into about 25,000 TPD of waste which can be fed to the WTE plant. But the total waste treatment capacity for 40-odd under-construction and proposed WTE plants is over 30,000 TPD. The question we need to ask policymakers and planners is: Where is the waste to burn in WTE plants?

As our population and economy grows, so will our waste. There is clearly a need for different technologies to manage different fractions of waste. WTE plants have a role, but not in the way our planners are envisaging. They should be the last resort to manage high-calorific-value waste that cannot be managed by other technologies. They must, in addition, be operated with the most advanced technologies to contain pollution. Otherwise, we will be creating landfills in the sky instead of on land.

(Deputy director general of Centre of Science and Environment. Twitter: Bh_Chandra)

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