Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Waste to Energy, Fact or Fiction

We have heard rags to riches stories. But waste to energy! is it really possible? Incredible as it may sound, business houses are coming forward to claim huge market for Indian waste to be their own. Question is how viable is technology to rid India of her mess?

Concept of waste management is very new in India. As a people we clean our homes and throw garbage out. We feel our home is clean. We do not care our surrounding is dirty. Waste management is city follows the same principle.  Municipalities keep cities clean by dumping city’s waste on landfill sites outside city limits. As understanding and awareness of citizens improved, people realized landfill sites are a major source of disease and environment pollution, in addition to being a stinking eyesore.

In India the concept of segregating waste into biodegradable and non biodegradable did not exist till very recently. Biodegradable waste constitute nearly 70% of municipal solid waste. Issue is if these cannot be dumped into landfill sites, what do we do with them? Many companies have come forward to take cared of different aspects of solid waste management – collection, sorting, transportation and disposal. Question is how to dispose the waste? It has been proposed to burn the waste and generate electricity. A few waste to energy plants have come up in Delhi and Lucknow.

Waste to energy plants have been plagued by many questions and criticisms. According to Almitra Patel (

Collection of biogas from landfill sites is not efficient. Unless such sites are tightly closed and have impervious walls. Such is not the case in Indian landfill sites. Colonies built of landfill sites may be prone to explosion due to leaching out of biogas generated from waste underneath the ground.

The impact on human health and environment of emission generated by burning waste is not known. Highly toxic materials like dioxin are generated as a result of burning waste. Jindal groups waste to energy plant set up in Delhi has been bogged down by litigation. The plan has not produced much energy

Methane gas produced as a result of burning waste is highly combustible. Explosion due leakage of stored methane gas is not uncommon. As a result waste to energy plants are set up with a buffer zone.

Energy content of India waste is low. Moreover, unless waste is mixed with agents that produce large quantity of methane, efficiency of converting methane to electricity  is only 30%. Unless huge amount of wasted like cow dung that generates high amount of methane such projects will remain inefficient. 

Plants get mixed waste of biodegradables with non biodegradables and inerts. After sorting out biodegradables, the amount of waste for energy goes down. Plants have to buy market wastes which are in high demand as animal feed.

Cost of generation of electricity by burning waste is 2 – 4 times higher than conventional method of energy generation – thermal power or hydroelectricity. Because profitability is low such projects have to be subsidized by governments. A waste to energy plant setup in Lucknow is finding it difficult to be viable.

There is no doubt that India must have efficient system for collection, segregation, transportation and disposal of municipal waste. Involvement of private players is welcome in all steps. So far over past sixty years we have seen that our municipalities have neither understanding nor intention to keep our cities clean. It is a matter of debate / dispute how to dispose of the waste. 

Landfill sites are becoming scarce and landfills are neither scientific nor safe. It has been estimated that amount of waste lying in one landfill site in Delhi from the past, will need 10 years to be disposed of if one plant of 5 Megawatt capacity is built that consumes 1300 tones of waste per day. 

I think India must employ all avenues available at her disposal to get rid of waste. Far too long we have lived in filth and squalor. Many a time offer has to be made attractive for a business to enter into a venture. At the same time, reason for entering into a business should not be subsidy but profit in the long run. Even if it is argued that waste disposal and not power generation is the motive of waste to energy program, all the more reason not to subsidise energy production cost. Because, energy production is over and above waste disposal and operator with better technology can reap most benefit out of it. I think it should be the responsibility of agency that takes contract to dispose of waste, to think how he goes about his business. Society must not subsidise business of a private player. Specially so when low cost option like composting is available. Operator must do research and make his system safe and profitable. In return he should keep the profit he gets from energy generated from waste.

Tags: Waste to Energy, Waste Disposal, Biodegradable Waste, Methane Gas, Landfill Site, Cost of Energy Production
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