Waste to energy: the renewable grey zone

The idea of burning parts of the waste stream to recovery energy has been around for decades. The idea of waste to energy is undergoing a renaissance in Australia as governments look for affordable, dispatchable and renewable sources of generation to complement increased renewable generation. But is waste to energy green or just another shade of brown?

In Perth a consortia of waste companies have approval to build a $495 million waste to energy facility at East Rockingham. The East Rockingham Resource Recovery Facility (ERRRF) will process up to 330,000 tonnes of waste and convert it into electricity through a 29MW power station.

The project has the financial backing of both the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), which would seem to indicate that they think the energy source is sufficiently renewable to pass their funding approval process.

The Western Australian Environment Protection Authority (EPA) is not so sure. In its assessment of waste to energy technology its only observation of the greenhouse emissions released were that this type of generation displaced conventional emissions, as opposed to confirming waste to energy is a renewable resource in and of itself.

The definition of what is acceptable fuel for waste to energy appears to be a bit fuzzy. The NSW EPA waste to energy policy statement only considers organic wastes and residues to be eligible waste fuels, presumably in part because there are limited higher uses for these materials and their combustion avoids their disposal to landfill, which creates methane – a potent greenhouse gas.

But the NSW EPA does not include the burning of other waste streams like papers and plastics. Nevertheless these have been given the all clear to be burnt in the ERRRF facility by the WA EPA in 2018, when it approved the removal of a sorting facility to remove these items before incineration.

Recycled plastic packaging is in recent oversupply in Australia as contracts to sell the material to China have fallen over due to oversupply, created by the growing middle class consumers inside China supplying those facilities instead.

Those plastics uncombusted will sit inert in landfills for decades, so it’s hard to see how this type of waste to energy could be classified as renewable by agencies like the WA EPA, ARENA and the CEFC.

Australian Paper has plans to build a 225MW waste to energy plant in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria, burning municipal solid waste to augment the bioenergy already created from the waste pulp produced at the mill. The value of this investment is to displace use of natural gas in the mill’s operations.

Another waste to energy facility has been approved by the Victorian EPA at Laverton North to convert 200,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste per annum into electricity through a 15MW power station.