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Waste-to-energy opportunities in the Middle East

Installation of WTE plants are witnessing strong interest in the GCC

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Waste to energy market in the GCC has witnessed 20-25% growth in the past three years
Waste to energy market in the GCC has witnessed 20-25% growth in the past three years

Rapid industrialisation in the region has led to greater economic prosperity and a growing population, which in turn have been contributing to the ever increasing municipal solid wastes. Landfills in the GCC have been overflowing, forcing governments to rethink ways to dispose of waste. And with environmental well being under immense spotlight, governments cannot just take any measures to get rid of waste, but devise an ecologically balanced, yet economically viable plan.

Taking forward the oft repeated policy of reduce, reuse and recycle, the nascent and evolving waste-to-energy industry focuses on using municipal solid wastes through incineration to generate energy in the form of electricity or heat. A growing volume of municipal solid waste, and increasing need to generate energy and stricter legislations are together driving the waste-to-energy plant market globally, according to a Frost & Sullivan report, which claims that the market revenues - which at the end of 2012 accounted for US$19bn - are expected to reach US$29bn by 2016.

“Landfilling of waste is no longer the economically sound process that it used to be a few years ago. Gate fees have risen considerably, leading market participants to explore competitive solutions,” said Monika Chruciak, Research Analyst Environmental & Building Technologies, Frost & Sullivan. “Waste-to-energy plants provide a waste treatment solutions which shift from limited recycling value to recycling with energy recovery. Successful operation of such plants relies on internal waste-to-energy plant economies, understanding of local conditions and also on an innovative business model. The market’s future prospects highlight the need for increased collaboration among stakeholders to complement each other’s expertise and knowledge base in tapping future growth opportunities.”

Currently, the installation of new waste to energy plants are witnessing strong interest in regions with the highest population density and limited area, such as Western Europe, the Middle East and also South Asia. At the same time, regions with developed economies and an existing installed base of waste to energy plants are expected to create vast modernisation opportunities by 2016.

The Middle East situation

Directly proportional to the accelerating consumption rates in the Middle East is the waste generation rates. Counted among the world’s largest waste producers is countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, some of which are said to produce as much as 2kg of per capita waste per day. According to a news report, the urban waste generation from the region has crossed 150 million tons per year which has forced policy-makers and urban planners to look for sustainable waste management solutions, including recycling and waste-to-energy.

According to Kshitij Nilkanth, program manager, Environmental and Building Technologies Practice, Middle East, North Africa and South Asia at Frost & Sullivan, waste to energy is an emerging market in the GCC and has immense potential. “Existing landfill sites are under pressure and sometimes are not sufficient to manage the huge volume of waste generated. For instance, Al Ghusais landfill site in Dubai is overloaded with dumped waste. Waste to energy projects are a solution to this growing problem as a well-managed mechanism can reduce up to 90 per cent of waste going to the landfill.”

The waste to energy market in the GCC has witnessed 20-25 per cent growth in the past three years. It is expected that this trend will continue till 2017 during which more waste-to-energy plants will be established. The main factors driving the market are growing population, high per capita waste generation (among the top ten in the world) and high economic growth.

“Per capita waste generation is highest in Bahrain, although the country is smallest among the GCC states. It generates about 1.5 million tons per annum of municipal solid waste. Also, the GCC is swiftly turning out to be one of the major commercial hubs globally and witnessing large floating populations. This also contributes to increased waste generation. It is expected that more funds will be diverted towards waste management and waste to energy projects in particular,” Nilkanth said.

Energy to be gained

The total energy produced from waste globally is about 140 terrawatt-hours (TWh) per annum, while the GCC countries contribute between 0.25 - 0.3 TWh, signifying that the market is at a nascent stage in the GCC. According to Nilkanth, certain states in the GCC have plans to produce a total of 2.7-3 TWh of energy from waste by 2017, with some planned projects in the Saudi Arabia and the UAE. “The Aksar project in Bahrain is also expected to commence operations during the next year in full swing contributing an additional 25 Mega-Watt (MW) power generation capacity,” he said.

Among the GCC countries, Qatar is said to be the first to implement waste-to-energy projects on a large scale. Presently, Qatar generates more than 30MW of energy from its plant. “Next in line is Bahrain which is expected to generate about 25 MW of power by 2014 followed by the UAE and the KSA, both targeting over 100 MW capacity in the near future,” Nilkanth said.

Globally, the number of installed such plants is expected to increase by 10 per cent between 2012 and 2016. But as far as UAE is concerned, the country is sending out mixed signals about investing in the waste to energy market. On one hand, Abu Dhabi is building a demonstration facility in Dalma Island, on the other, Dubai last year scrapped plans to tender a mega 2000-3000 tonne project for good.

UAE’s projects

Abu Dhabi National Energy Company (TAQA) and the UAE’s Center for Waste Management (CWM) signed an agreement early this year to study and develop the facility, which is expected to produce one to two megawatts of alternative energy, enough to supply power to more than 200 households.

Waste from Dalma Island, located 32km offshore Abu Dhabi’s western region, was being dumped in city landfills. The demonstration facility, a first in the UAE, is expected to begin operations in 2016-17.

However, this is not the case in Dubai, where a waste-to-energy project did not see the light of day despite being tendered three times before deciding to pull the plug permanently. In an emirate where nearly 7,800 tonnes of domestic waste is produced on an average each day, the government is undoubtedly looking for innovative and resourceful ways to use that waste. It is believed that one of the previous attempts to start the US $2bn project was cancelled because of financing issues, while the first tender was cancelled because the scope of the project was too open. One of the project plan was to build three incinerators in Al Warsan each with a capacity of 50MW with abilities to process about 6,000 t/d of domestic waste under a 20-year contract.

Technological aspects

The waste to energy technologies have been around for a while and have also been infamous for polluting the air, making them not so ecologically beneficial after all. So the question is how much has such technologies evolved in the past few years.

“Conventional technologies include mechanical biological treatment and incineration. Among the newer technologies anaerobic digestion, gasification, pyrolysis and plasma incineration are prominent. These technologies are being used extensively to extract energy from waste worldwide. Technological focus and research is underway to increase the efficiency of the technology and to decrease cost incurred, both in terms of initial capital and operating costs,” Nilkanth said.

According to him, in a well-executed waste-to-energy plant air pollution is negligible. “In fact, for every megawatt of energy generated through combustion of solid waste there is net saving of emissions of greenhouse gases as compared to energy generated from conventional (fossil fuel) power plant,” he said. The plant fire is said to be carefully controlled and the exit air is said to pass through a series of separators which eliminate the release of harmful gases to the environment.

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