With truckloads of untreated waste being generated daily, while the country is struggling to achieve consistent power supply to all, waste-to-energy seems to be a bright proposition. However, awareness and implementation remain major constraints.
Development has ushered a whole new era of rapid industrial progress and improved living standards in India, and along with it, has spewed truckloads of toxic trash as by-product. India´s waste management scenario is bleak, as can be judged by a report released by The Planning Commission way back in May 2014, stating that about 62 million tonnes (MT) of municipal solid waste (MSW) is generated annually by 377 million people in urban areas. This has made urban India the world´s third largest garbage generator, after China and US.
To make things worse, of the 62 MT garbage generated, over 80 per cent is disposed of indiscriminately at dump yards in an unhygienic manner, leading to heath issues and environmental degradation. And these figures pertain only to MSW generated in urban areas; the scenario looks bleaker when we consider 38 billion litres of sewage and 7.90 MT of hazardous waste generated every year.
Waste to Energy
The brighter side however, is that not all waste needs to remain lying as trash. According to The Planning Commission´s report, the untapped MSW has a potential of generating 439 MW of power from 32,980 tonne per day (TPD) of combustible wastes including refuse derived fuel (RDF) and 1.3 million cubic metre of biogas per day i.e., 72 MW of electricity from biogas. The total waste-to-energy potential (including urban, industrial, biomass and biomedical wastes) of India is much more - 2,556 MW according to Energy Statistics 2015 released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI).
Salman Zafar, CEO, BioEnergy Consult says, ´As per Energy Statistics 2015, waste-to-energy potential in India is estimated to be 2,556MW, of which approximately 150MW (around 6 per cent) has been harnessed till March 2016.´
Given that the Indian power sector is yet to make any major breakthrough in ensuring consistent supply to all, such a significant waste-to-energy potential is a welcome news. Moreover, the environmental problems caused by garbage can be mitigated by adopting eco-friendly waste-to-energy technologies, which can treat and process the waste before disposal, in addition to generating clean energy.
Any organic waste is in fact a resource due to its degradability, which allows it to be used for generating energy. Energy can be recovered from the organic part of waste, be it biodegradable or non-biodegradable, through thermal, thermo-chemical, biochemical and electrochemical methods.
Thermal conversion involves thermal degradation of waste under high temperature, causing complete oxidation of the waste. The traditional technological option under this category is incineration, which though, entails high levels of harmful emissions. However, as Zafar says,´Advanced thermal technologies like thermal de-polymerisation and plasma gasification are hogging the limelight, mainly due to better energy efficiency, high conversion rates and less emissions.´
Thermo-chemical conversion is generally employed on wastes that contain high percentage of organic non-biodegradable matter and low moisture content. The process entails high temperature driven decomposition of organic matter through pyrolysis or gasification to produce either heat energy or fuel oil or gas. The products of these processes (producer gas, exhaust gases, etc.) can be used purely as heat energy or further processed chemically, to produce a range of end products.
Bio-chemical conversion is based on enzymatic decomposition of organic biodegradable matter by microbial action to produce methane gas and alcohol. Anaerobic digestion (bio-methanation) and fermentation are the popular technologies deployed in bio-chemical conversion, with anaerobic digestion being used more frequently, while fermentation is still emerging.
Electrochemical conversion entails employing microbial fuel cells (MFC), which can trap the energy from wastes. The reduction-oxidation machinery of immobilized microbial cells is catalytically exploited for the accelerated transfer of electrons from organic wastes, to generate electricity and bio-hydrogen gas. However this technology needs extensive evaluation studies on bulk scale liquid waste treatments and still stands at a nascent stage.
Despite the abundant waste-to-energy potential, India´s progress in the field has been lethargic so far. Availability of land and funds is a major issue. Further, due to mismanagement, the waste collection is often inefficient and the deliveries are unreliable. The waste collected is often inaccurately segregated, which results in poor quality of waste, making it incompatible with the plants. Moreover, truck collections are sometimes deliberately contaminated with industrial wastes to increase the supply´s weight and cost.
In addition, waste to energy projects in India aren´t economically feasible much, primarily due to the lack of a standard gate or tipping fee as well as incentives like feed-in-tariffs (FiTs). Consequently, investments in the sector tend to be minimal. However, lack of empathetic government policies and regulations, proper cooperation from municipalities and awareness among the public remain the biggest concerns for the industry. Lack of public awareness particularly contributes to the lacklustre growth of the industry. As Zafar puts it,´Waste-to-energy projects, be it in India or any other developing country, is plagued by not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) effect. The general attitude towards waste-to-energy is that of indifference resulting in lukewarm public participation in such projects.´
The Government has in fact taken some important initiatives to improve the waste management and waste-to-energy scenario in the country. The Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan (Clean India Mission), launched on October 2, 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with a mission to achieve its objective by 2019, aims at the complete collection and scientific processing, disposal, reuse/recycle of MSW for all the 4,041 statutory towns in the country, with an outlay of Rs.62,009 crore.
In addition, MNRE has promoted the recovery of energy from industrial and urban wastes, seeking to promote setting up of waste-to-energy plants. Various financial incentives (listed in the box on the left) have been proposed by the MNRE to encourage the participation in waste-to-energy projects.
The Way Ahead
With the government contemplating such high ambitions as smart cities and power for all, it is imperative that waste-to-energy and integrated waste management be given high priority. While government measures and initiatives like Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan are a definitive step towards progress, the waste-to-energy industry in the country is still plagued by sluggish growth. Spreading awareness among the public about the health and environmental benefits of waste-to-energy, to counter the NIMBY effect remains the most crucial concern. Also, stringent rules and regulations should be formulated to curb corrupt practices prevalent among municipal bodies. Says Zafar, ´It has been observed that sometimes municipal officials connive with local politicians and ´garbage mafia´ to create hurdles in waste collection and waste transport.´
Formulating an integrated waste management strategy where recycling and waste-to-energy are given due importance in government policies can spell wonders for the sector. Zafar insists on the setting up of ´dedicated waste-to-energy research centre to develop a low-cost and low-tech solution to harness clean energy from millions of tons of waste generated in India.´Policies that could encourage small-to-medium scale ventures can also go a long way in boosting the sector, since big projects are more prone to failure. ´However, government policies should be inclined towards inclusive waste management, whereby the informal recycling community is not robbed of its livelihood due to waste-to-energy projects,´ Zafar adds.