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How can waste-to-energy technology help the developing countries?

In the last two years, I have been in India, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan. I saw firsthand, how these countries struggle with accumulated mountains of municipal waste and all related problems: hatefully stench, rodents, insects, diseases, etc.


For example, Cairo produces 15000 tons of municipal waste perday, which means 5.4 million tons of municipal waste every year. This fact always has been seen as a serious problem by the government in Egypt, and it induces immense costs for burning or landfilling the waste. Out of considering indirect caused costs like the treatment of respiratory diseases. However, this huge amount of waste could produce 3.5 TWh/year*, which exceeds the whole electricity consumption of some countries like Ethiopia, Senegal, or Kosovo in 2016 and exceeds the half of the electricity consumption of Luxemburg.

At the same time, converting the trash to energy could reduce the oil bill for those countries which need to import the oil, increasing their independents.

Do we talk about a problem or about an opportunity?

This is just one example which we can see overall in the developing countries. The available technologies today allow us turning this serious problem in a real chance, and turning this mountain of trash into real cash.

There are several proven technologies for making it happen. The most used one is the incineration technology: as it showed in the graph below, it starts with pre-treatment of the waste, then burning them in a grate boiler generating heat which we can use to generate steam. This steam can utilize a steam turbine which drives a generator to produce electricity or controlled steam for industrial usage. For example ~ 10 Mtoe of primary energy was produced by the combustion of renewable municipal waste in the European Union in 2016.

The produced energy will support the emerging industrial infrastructures in developing countries and enhance the local societies to generate business and to combat unemployment and poverty. Furthermore, it will help these countries to reduce their oil bill.

We have the technologies and we have the waste. What are we waiting for? Why do we not see these facilities everywhere in developing countries?

There are several challenges which we should overcome in order to enable this shift:

  • Waste is, for now, a liability. The revenue streams for large-scale municipal waste-to-energy facilities from selling energy, cannot cover their costs. Thus, the tipping fees are a key source of revenue for viable operation of a WtE facility. Another option is to guaranty a high FiT (Feed-in-Tariff). These should be regulated by government to create a viable basis for WtE industry. Therefore, the regulatory framework is always the first step to create this market.
  • Developing countries will need customized solutions, which consider their local conditions. Avoiding copy/ paste the facilities in EU is crucial. For example, all WtE facilities in India up to 2003 failed. Key reason among others: copying the European models without considering the local reality in depth. E.g., the size of the facility is related to the available infrastructure and its capabilities. Furthermore, in India, Middle East, Latin America and Africa, there is no need for district heating as in Germany or in Scandinavia, but there is a need for district cooling. In Saudi Arabia, Jordan or in Egypt, it is possible to desalinate the sea water by using the heat generated by incinerated waste. 
  • The financial aid is also a considerable hurdle. We should look for attractive financing model to enable such projects in low income countries.

Depending on the local reality, it is possible to combine a WtE facility with a gas power plant or with a biomass power plant to achieve a feasible economically operating basic. 

  It was also published on INGENUITY and on LinkendIn in July, 2018.

- With considering the following assumptions: Average waste heat contents 7,2 MJ/kg, and overall power plant efficiency of 25%.
- Mtoe: Million tonne of oil equivalent


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