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Harnessing waste energy

GESS has pioneered the UAE's first Waste to Energy project

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Installing the main pipe for gas collection
Installing the main pipe for gas collection

Green Energy Solutions & Sustainability (GESS) has pioneered the UAE’s first Waste to Energy project.

It is just over a year since Dubai’s first waste to energy project was commissioned at the Emirate’s largest landfill at Al Qusais. The brainchild of Anita Nour, a Canadian who relocated to Dubai in 2008, the landfill is currently producing 1 MW of electricity which is used to power facilities at the site.

Nour’s company, Green Energy Solutions & Sustainability (GESS), is ready to produce 12 MW of power within a year of being given the green light to sell power to the grid and potentially as much as 20 MW for up to 20 years.

That possibility is complicated by the fact that landfills fall under the jurisdiction of Dubai Municipality rather than Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), which is the only entity permitted to sell power in Dubai. But Nour is confident that talks will bear fruit in the near future.

“Discussions have begun with DEWA to connect the project to the grid because at the moment there is no mechanism to sell landfill gas,” she says. “They’ve started legislation for solar energy but not for landfill gas which is much lower hanging fruit on the renewable chain because it’s more straightforward. All landfills produce methane gas which is harming the environment and it can be harnessed to produce power.”

Al Qusais is capable of producing 12MW from the gas gathered by pipes installed in the ground, Nour adds. “The 1 MW being produced right now is running the flares, the site office, all the electrical needs for GESS and for the Dubai Municipality site offices. The vision of H.E. Hussain Nasser Lootah, director general of Dubai Municipality, is to be able to ramp this up as a phase 2 and produce power for the grid.”

Nour established the company in November 2011, but the idea originated in 2008 shortly after she arrived in Dubai with her family and saw a need for waste management solutions. “I came from Canada where landfills produce power the same as in Europe and the US, where over 75% of landfills produce power for the grid,” she says.

“Here there was nothing like that. In this region, being an oil region and growing as fast as it has, renewables were way down the list. It was an opportunity for us to be able to help them work towards the goal of sustainability.”

The original plan was to sell carbon but that evaporated when the carbon market collapsed leaving GESS without a revenue stream. The project is registered at the United Nations under the clean development mechanism (CDM) to reduce the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

“Al Qusais is reducing 400,000 tonnes plus per year of CO2 which is like taking 80,000 cars off the road,” Nour explains. “It’s a very large CDM project registered with the UN producing credits which are sold on the global market under CER (certified emission reductions) and can also be sold under voluntary emission reductions.”

When GESS started out a tonne of CO2 cost around EUR 8 ($10.6) or 9 and it was anticipated to rise to EUR 16 per tonne of CO2 but the CER market has since crashed for various reasons, she explains. “If your country is in trouble economically you can either save the environment and climate or the banks. China didn’t help, the US not being in Kyoto didn’t help and Germany and the EU didn’t back it,” she says.

“A lot of projects disappeared and lots of people lost money. We were actually lucky. Our project is equity funded and my financial partner is able to sustain the project but it needs revenue, so the best thing is to produce power from the landfill gas which is 50% to 60% methane compared to natural gas which is 95% methane.”

The engineering team at GESS has experience of degassing over a hundred landfills in Europe but this is its first project as a company. It has also tested on the Jebel Ali landfill which Nour says has the potential to produce two to three megawatts.

“All municipal landfills should be degassed and can produce power and it’s free power! It’s much more reliable than solar, the efficiency is much higher and it’s a renewable that should be taken seriously,” she says.

“But at the moment there’s no government incentive. If this project was not equity funded it would not have happened. We’ve put in over 25kms of piping underground to collect the gas, we’re flaring 6,000 cubic metres per hour of landfill gas which is reducing the impact on the environment and could be used to produce 12MW of electricity. It’s a no brainer that it should go to produce power.”

Nour is optimistic about the future for sustainable and renewable projects in the region. “I think that what has helped this region for sustainable development is the fact that Dubai was awarded the Expo 2020. That has boosted the prospects of renewables in the region.”

However she still believes that creating an internal carbon market would have its benefits. “Dubai Supreme Council and Dubai Carbon should work together and create an internal carbon market. If they do that it will allow companies with large carbon footprints to buy carbon so it will help projects like us to sell our credits and it will create a cleaner and more sustainable environment.”

GESS, which now employs around 10 people, purchased a GE engine, a modified J320 Jenbacher, considered the “workhorse” of landfill gas engines. Landfill gas is dirty and contains harmful substances and the engine has to be able to use this gas, Nour explains.

“We’ve designed a landfill gas collection system in a way that keeps the landfill active so the collection is underground in vertical and horizontal pipes around the perimeter of the landfill,” she says. “The pipes bring the gas into chillers which then go to the flare which burns off the methane and lets CO2 into the atmosphere.

“It has reduced the number of fires, extended the life of the landfill, made it more environmental and it doesn’t smell as bad, and that’s much better for the people living around the landfill, which is fully covered with layers of sand.”

Getting this far has proved challenging because GESS is pioneering something new for the region, Nour says.
“Without us pushing and making it happen it would not have happened. I really believe that you have to have an operating project to be able to reach the second stage. If I didn’t already have that to show DEWA and Dubai Municipality, the discussion would take years,” she says.

“It takes a lot of patience and perseverance to make things work here. But Dubai is a place where, if you have a vision, you can do something good and there is a lot of opportunity, especially in the renewable markets ,to do something good. If you chase the good instead of just the dollar, I believe the dollar will come.”

Facts:
- 12MW Power the project could produce within a year if given the green light
- 400,000 Tonnes per year of carbon the project prevents from being emitted

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