The problem of how to dispose of waste in an environmentally responsible way is a problem that has confronted humanity for centuries. Until recently, most jurisdictions have simply buried all their waste in landfill sites — essentially big holes in the ground covered when filled to capacity. Then the disposal process repeats at a new location.
Unfortunately, this disposal method is neither desirable nor sustainable. Working landfills are unsightly, produce odors, and are known to attract pests. Decommissioned sights often produce methane, a significant contributor to climate change, and gas 80 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide. Furthermore, leachate, formed when rainwater passes through buried wastes, is a significant source of pollution for rivers, lakes, and groundwater. Even with recycling and composting, global waste production will grow 70% by 2050, so more effective waste management solutions are needed.
Energy recovery from solid waste can play a role
The pressing need to minimize environmental impacts and create more sustainable, healthy communities is driving locales across the globe to take a closer look at Waste-to-Energy (WtE) options.
WtE refers to a range of technologies used to convert waste that cannot be recycled into usable forms of energy, such as heat or electricity.
The most common and economically viable WtE application is incineration, where waste is used as fuel in an ultra-high combustion process that generates steam to produce electrical power. Modern plants feature a variety of pollution control measures to prevent harmful emissions and bear almost no resemblance to the garbage incinerators from past decades. In fact, WtE is viewed by many as a good long-term waste management option that offers significant benefits that include:
- Autonomous renewable energy security and circular economy – particularly when used as a baseload facility, WtE plants can sync with renewable power and energy storage technologies to stabilize the electrical grid in distributed or centralized generation applications.
- Greenhouse gas emission reduction – the waste sector accounts for almost 20% of all human-related methane emissions. WtE can be part of a decarbonization strategy that swiftly reduces emissions to achieve the least cost-pathways Paris Agreement’s 1.5° C target by 2030.
- Reduced municipal solid waste volume – less than 20% of waste worldwide is recycled. In comparison, 37% is dumped in a landfill of some kind, and global waste growth is affecting the climate, economic development and human health, driving awareness of WtE as a sensible way to reduce surging quantities of trash.
Filtering out harmful substances, recovering metals, and separating materials for reuse helps make WtE a more sustainable waste management solution
Although incinerating waste to produce electricity may sound straightforward, doing so with peak efficiency and in an environmentally sound manner can be highly demanding.
Three key challenges facing WtE plants can be addressed through advanced technology and integrated solutions spanning the entire plant’s lifecycle, including:
- Reduced profitability due to varying feedstock – optimizing the production and integration of WtE feedstock, as well as maximizing its calorific inputs, can be enhanced with visual waste detection abilities enabled by machine learning solutions like EcoStruxure Autonomous Production Advisor
- Lower productivity due to plant assets and process control deficiencies – solutions that deliver state-of-the-art process energy optimization and control, such as EcoStruxure Power and Process and EcoStruxure Maintenance Advisor, can ensure the many plant processes related to combustion, power generation, and environmental control operate at peak efficiency.
- High capital costs – selecting a single vendor as the central automation and electrical partner can deliver significant cost and performance benefits during a WtE plant’s design and construction phase.
WtE generating plants are evolving, and modern facilities are helping contribute to the reduction of biomass’s negative environmental impacts, thanks in part to more advanced process control and machine learning technologies that enable efficient, safe feedstock sorting. They are also becoming highly integrated and circular, utilizing renewable energy sources that aid in landfill diversion, greenhouse gas emission reduction, and sustainable energy production. Learn more about how Schneider Electric can help your WtE efforts.