Remember that food packaging you threw into the garbage yesterday, or the broken table-tennis paddle or kid’s sneakers full of holes? Probably not. That’s why they’re in the garbage. But increasingly, the United Arab Emirates is focusing on all that trash, and it’s looking to turn it into electricity.
Waste-to-energy (WtE) plants are increasingly under focus in the UAE and across the Middle East, as governments and policy makers recognize that this technology can solve two problems through one solution.
Rapid economic development has improved the quality of life for people across the region, but one unfortunate complement to that growth is a big increase in municipal waste.
Even in countries like the UAE – with seemingly endless deserts – landfills are never an ideal option, particularly when they are working hard to reduce their nations’ environmental footprints.
Tons of waste
To put the waste challenge into perspective, the UAE generates approximately 14 million tons of municipal waste or 1.6 kilograms of waste per person per day.
WtE offers a great opportunity to turn a lot of that non-recyclable waste into electricity and help the UAE achieve its 2021 goal of diverting 75% of its solid waste from landfill sites.
The most common and most proven technology for doing this is incineration. This process begins with pre-treatment of the waste. The waste is then burned in a boiler to generate steam. This highly pressurized steam then passes through a steam turbine which drives a generator to produce electricity.
Cutting costs, boosting bankability
Despite the benefits, WtE faces several hurdles to greater implementation, primarily around construction costs and operating expenses. To address these issues, steps can be taken on the one hand to improve the technology and efficiency of operations, and on the other hand to increase revenues through garbage tipping fees and by increasing feed-in tariffs paid by utilities to WtE plants.
The UAE has already begun to explore to possibilities with WtE plants. In Sharjah, Bee’ah operates the region’s first gasification plant, a 35-megawatt (MW) facility with the capacity to process around 160,000 tons of non-recyclable waste annually.
Bee’ah also is developing an incineration WtE plant in cooperation with Abu Dhabi-based Masdar. On completion, the plant will divert more than 300,000 tons of solid waste from landfill each year, while producing 240,000 MW-hours of clean energy. Dubai is working on a major WtE incineration plant whose phase 1 will be capable of processing 2,000 tons of solid waste every day with a generating capacity of 60 MW. There also is a 2 MW WtE plant in Ras Al Khaimah, and plans for a large plant in Abu Dhabi.
Waste to water
While all these facilities are focused on generating electricity, the thermal heat produced by WtE plants also can be used in other ways. For example, thermal heat can be used in desalination plants or in industrial processes. There also are other forms of WtE technologies, such as the Bee’ah plant in Sharjah that gasifies waste to burn as fuel in gas turbines.
Despite the various technologies, we are still in the early days of the WtE industry. Plants such as those operating and under construction in the UAE will help move the industry further along, while technology providers such as Siemens are working to improve the performance and efficiency of equipment, such as steam turbines.
One turbine, different heat intensities
For example, one of the things that differentiates solid waste as a fuel from, say, natural gas, is that waste not homogeneous. That means it burns with different heat intensities, which can impact the steam load sent from the boiler to the steam turbine. Our turbines are designed to handle this load variability. Siemens turbines also have quick start times, which provide additional flexibility to WtE plant operators. Siemens turbines also have shorter maintenance times, resulting in greater availability. All of these factors can help manage operating expenses.
Siemens turbines also can help developers control capital expenses, thus improving the bankability of WtE projects. By offering a wide range of turbines to fit any plant’s requirements, a compact turbine footprint, and an optimal interface between boiler and steam turbine, our turbines deliver benefits on the CAPEX side of the equation too.
Developers can find other ways to improve the viability of WtE plants by looking beyond the facility itself – for example, by combining a WtE plant into a conventional gas-fueled plant project.
With our partners, we offer a broad portfolio of services to support WtE projects, from design and financing, to turnkey development and service contracts for turbines and other equipment. This expertise, alongside our work with municipalities and private companies around the world, means we are a ready partner to address the twin issues of clean energy and waste management.
We live at a time of great challenge and opportunity, when the road into the future may pass through the bottom of a garbage pail. We look forward to working with the UAE and its visionary leaders to achieve this future of countless possibilities.