Seeking alternative energy solutions: waste-to-energy

Speaking ahead of his presentation at All-Energy Australia 2013, Managing Director of Tersum Energy Rod Littlejohn discusses the potential for energy generated from waste.

The key to maintaining our living standards is access to affordable, secure energy. Australia is blessed with an abundance of natural gas and coal but is an importer of diesel and other fuels used primarily in transportation and aviation. All of these are subject to international trade and therefore they are vulnerable to open market forces.

Technology is an enabler for the first world and its enterprises to deliver affordable, secure energy.

There is a great deal of emphasis on developing renewable sources of energy. Over time we will overcome the challenges of reliability and intermittency that are currently the road blocks for the greater integration of renewables.

However, it is not only in the area of solar, wind and other traditional renewable energy sources that technology is enabling change, but also their quiet cousin, energy-from-waste.

Energy-from-waste differs from traditional renewable energy as it is a baseload power substitute for natural gas, diesel and coal. The energy-from-waste process creates an energy product called syngas, which can be used in today’s gas engines and turbines to deliver power.

As there is no international market either for landfill waste or syngas, the price of the energy is more stable than the internationally traded fossil fuels, thereby offering greater predictability for the users of power on pricing.

An industry new to Australia, energy-from-waste facilities have been used in Europe and North America for more than 30 years. In their first incarnation they were more like incinerators, but today they are efficient and clean producers of power from waste that would normally have been landfilled.

Energy-from-waste is a term applied to a range of technologies; however, in essence the waste is heated so that it changes from a solid state of matter to a gaseous state of matter. To ensure the potential energy is not lost or consumed in the process, the supply of oxygen is limited to avoid a flame.

Australians generate in excess of 40 million tonnes of waste annually. By 2020 this could grow to between 55 and 115 million tonnes. The total energy potential of this waste is enough to generate close to 20 per cent of Australia’s power needs.

The Western Australian Government, through its Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recently commissioned a study into the environmental and health performance of ‘waste to energy’ technologies. This study concluded there is a place for energy-from-waste in the energy and waste supply chains.

The EPA identified a number of preconditions that will need to be adopted by the industry as projects develop. These are designed to ensure that first and foremost, the environment and local communities near energy-from-waste facilities are not harmed.

Proven commercial-scale technologies that use post recycled waste, and that meet the EU Waste Incineration Directive (considered best practice) are some of the standards that will need to be in place before any approvals will be granted.

There is much work ahead for energy-from-waste to be one of the future electricity sources of the future.

Communities need to be engaged so they can both understand the technology and the local benefits it can bring, such as energy and economic diversity. Industry needs to embrace the opportunity to both provide a commercial alternative to their current waste management approaches and secure energy in long-term contracts at prices that are not linked to international markets.

Energy-from-waste is not a total solution, nor should it be developed and deployed in isolation from alternatives. In an environment where we are increasingly considering our carbon footprint and our impact on the world we live, energy from waste is the next link in the energy supply chain.

Rod Littlejohn is Managing Director of Tersum Energy. Mr Littlejohn is a seasoned oil and gas project services manager with experience spanning over 15 years.

Click here for more information on the speaker program at All-Energy Australia 2013.

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