Waste-to-Energy Could be Long-Term Renewable Solution

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On a recent business trip to Edmonton in northern Canada, I was surprised to find, amid the bales of recycled materials and heavy equipment pushing around mountains of trash, a large facility that looked a lot like an oil refinery.

The building was a couple of storeys high and consisted of a network of interlocking pipes, surrounded by a cage of steel framing and a number of platforms. When I asked about it, a landfill worker told me the facility is a “waste-to-biofuels plant” that essentially converts garbage into biofuels.

Opened in June, the waste-to-biofuels plant operated by Enerkem, is the first in the world to transform solid waste into biofuels and chemicals.

The waste is heated and converted into a gas, then changed into liquid methanol, which is then used in the production of local products, including windshield wiper fluid and gasoline.

The plant will process around 100,000 tonnes of solid waste annually and turn it into 38 million litres of methanol, enough to fuel 400,000 cars. Anecdotally, there is also a plan to run the landfill’s heavy machinery on biodiesel produced from the waste-to-energy plant.

Waste diversion is a big buzzword in municipalities, most of which face challenges finding enough landfill space. Waste-to-energy plants solve that problem as well as reduce carbon dioxide emissions from rotting garbage. In Edmonton’s case, the plant will divert an astounding 90% of the city’s garbage from landfills by 2016, from the current 60% diversion rate done through composting and recycling.

Pretty good for a city not exactly bursting with green credentials; Edmonton is just a few hours’ drive from Fort McMurray, the epicentre of the Canadian oil sands industry, and the two cities are closely connected through oilfield services businesses.

The evidence shows this isn’t just a local story. While a good many municipalities won’t budget the $100 million that it cost Edmonton to build its waste-to-energy plant, others will. According to a 2014 report, capital spending in the global waste to energy market is projected to reach $7.637 billion in 2014, with most of the growth in Europe and Asia.

“In Europe, many countries are gearing up to meet impending landfill reduction targets, providing impetus for the Waste To Energy (WtE) market. In Asia, China is racing ahead with its plan to dramatically increase WtE capacity to deal with a combination of escalating population and growth in waste generation,” writes the lead author of the report, titled “Waste To Energy (WtE) Market Forecast 2014-2024”.

“With continued urbanization, population growth, and a desire for more sustainable and sanitary waste disposal processes, there are significant opportunities in the WtE market over the next 10 years.”

A wacky example of Europe embracing waste to energy comes from Bristol, where the U.K.’s first bus entirely powered by human and food waste has gone into service between Bristol and Bath. Yes, you heard that right: Human waste. The “poo bus” can travel up to 300 kilometres on one tank of gas which takes the annual waste of about five people to produce, the BBC reported last week.

And if that isn’t enough to give one indigestion, The Mail Online said the same week that researchers have discovered a way for feces to power cell phones. The study from the University of East Anglia examined how electrons cross bacterial proteins found in human and animal feces. The process could produce enough energy for portable technology such as smartphones, tablets and laptops.

While some people might pause at being given a ride on the “poo bus”, the optics haven’t stopped some big companies from jumping on the waste-to-energy bandwagon. British Airways in April partnered with Solena Fuels to build the world’s first facility to convert landfill waste into jet fuel. When finished in 2017, the GreenSky project in East London will annually convert about 575,000 tonnes of waste destined for landfills or incineration, into 120,000 tonnes of liquid fuels, including 50,000 tonnes of jet fuel that BA has committed to buying at market rates.

GreenSky follows earlier private waste-to-energy endeavours, including Fiberight’s plan in 2013 to build a plant in Iowa to convert municipal solid waste (MSW) into feedstock for biogas and ethanol; and Fulcrum BioEnergy Inc.’s plan to produce biojet fuel from MSW using a gasification system developed by Fischer Tropsch.

While waste-to-energy isn’t nearly as sexy a topic as solar or other burgeoning renewable technologies, it does have one thing going for it: As long as there is humanity, there will be waste. If industry and municipalities can figure out a way to use that waste and convert it into something useful, we’ll all be the better off for it.

Originally written for OilPrice.com, a website that focuses on news and analysis on topics of alternative energy, geopolitics, and oil and gas. OilPrice.com is written for an educated audience that includes investors, fund managers, resource bankers, traders, and energy market professionals around the world.