India is on its way to overtake China in becoming the most populous country in the world. At this juncture, one can assume that “with great population, comes great responsibility”. As the population grows and urbanisation increases, the dual problems of waste management and mismatch between power demand and supply are likely to witness an upsurge.
Waste-to-energy (WtE) has been introduced as a concept to serve the dual purpose of waste management while meeting power demand. As per the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, the total estimated energy generation potential from urban and industrial organic waste in India is approximately 5,690 MW. However, in the case of India, the segment has not yet taken off due to a multitude of regulatory, financial and political hurdles.
This article highlights recent developments, key challenges and the potential outlook for WtE in India…
The capacity utilisation of India’s WtE potential remains low at present. However, in recent months, the sector has witnessed some activity. In August 2022, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) announced the setting up of nine mini-WtE or biomethanisation plants across Mumbai city. With an aim to reduce wet waste dumping at Mumbai’s Deonar and Kanjumarg landfills, plants shall be able to process 2 metric tonnes (mt) of organic waste per day.
In Delhi, in a bid to convert sludge from sewage treatment plants into energy, NTPC Limited partnered with the Delhi Jal Board in April 2022. The waste sludge was torrefied and burnt from NTPC’s Unit 4 boiler at Dadri. The technique used in this project is said to be an effective mechanism to utilise waste sludge while reducing NTPC’s carbon footprint. The disposal of sludge poses a severe threat to the health of the environment. Thus, such projects are a welcome step in utilising sludge to meet the dual purpose of electricity generation as well as pollution reduction.
In January 2022, the Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) floated a tender to set up an 8 MW grid-connected WtE project in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. The project will be interconnected with the existing grid network to supply power to SECI. Furthermore, in November 2021, NTPC Vidyut Vyapar Nigam Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of NTPC Limited, signed a Rs 1.8 billion agreement with Varanasi Nagar Nigam for the construction of a WtE plant. Approximately, 20 acres of land in Ramana has been set aside for the plant’s development. The project includes the construction of a plant with a waste segregation facility capable of processing roughly 600-800 tonnes of municipal solid trash per day. The waste will be converted into torrefied charcoal when put into the reactor at a relatively lower temperature vis-à-vis previously adopted technologies. This will create a substitute for natural coal, which is likely to be combined with fuel to generate power in thermal power plants.
The Delhi case
According to a report by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the capital city of Delhi produces the highest per capita solid waste in India. The city has established three municipal solid waste-based WtE plants – at Okhla, Ghazipur and Narela-Bawana. The three plants have a combined power generation capacity of 52 MW, with a capacity to process over 5,200 mt of waste. According to a Lok Sabha response, over 80-90 per cent of the solid waste generated in Delhi is processed at one of these three facilities. However, CPCB data suggests that out of the 11,120 mt of municipal waste generated in the city per day, only 5,800 mt reaches the WtE plants. Over 50 per cent of the solid waste is untreated and dumped at the city’s three landfills. (Their size and height have escalated to the extent that these landfills are anecdotally talked about as giving Delhi “a view of the mountains up close”!) More importantly, these landfills have become a hazard point for fire breakouts. In April 2022, a massive fire occurred at the Ghazipur landfill in east Delhi, the third such incident at the site within the same year. The Bhalswa landfill in north Delhi also witnessed a fire outbreak in the months of April and June this year. The fire at Bhalswa kept raging for over 10 days, creating dense smoke and hazardous fumes across the surrounding regions. These landfills pose a serious threat to the health and well-being of the people and the environment around them, reiterating the need to segregate waste and utilise it effectively for power generation and other purposes.
The WtE plants in Delhi have also courted backlash from the public, especially the residents of areas neighbouring these plants. For instance, ever since the Okhla plant became operational in 2012, it has met with a series of controversies. In February 2017, the facility was accused of not adhering to the emission and pollution norms by the National Green Tribunal, for which it had to pay Rs 2.5 million. The plant has reportedly generated toxic amounts of carcinogens such as dioxins and furans, which are released following the combustion during incineration of waste. As a result, local residents have filed several petitions claiming the inappropriate location of the plant as it is situated close to densely populated residential colonies. In August 2021, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee also fined the plant Rs 0.5 million on the same grounds as the emission values of toxins were found to be over 10 times the permissible limit. More recently, a proposal was introduced to expand the capacity of the Okhla plant from 23 MW to 40 MW. However, following a public hearing in August 2022, the proposal was declined by the authorities.
The WtE sector faces several challenges, many of which are fundamental in nature. The suitability of waste for utilisation in WtE plants is primarily based on their level of moisture, composition and calorific value. High calorific value, low moisture content and low/no organic waste are ideal in this regard. However, much of the waste processed at the plants in India is organic and is characterised by high moisture content and low calorific value.
Historically, municipal solid waste-based WtE plants in India have failed to show promise. The first such plant was established in Delhi in 1987, with a capacity to produce 3.75 MW of power by incinerating 300 mt of municipal waste per day. However, the plant remained in operation for merely three weeks due to the unsuitability of waste received by the plant. More than three decades later, not much has changed. Over 50 per cent of plants established in the country have already shut down. Despite the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, which permit only non-recyclable waste to be utilised in WtE plants, organic and mixed waste continues to be fed into them. This gives rise to the need to use additional fuel to generate electricity from these plants, resulting in greater costs of producing electricity. This highlights the key role that waste segregation can play in determining the effectiveness and profitability of these plants. Waste segregation is still an alien concept for most households in the country. As long as this remains, the waste delivered at these plants will contain high inert content, which is unsuitable for power generation.
Municipal solid waste-based WtE plants are also capital intensive and entail very high operations and maintenance costs as compared to conventional power plants. Tariffs associated with power generated from these plants are relatively higher than those associated with thermal and solar power plants
The backlash from the general public and environmentalists has also slowed down the development of such WtE projects. In December 2021, Mumbai’s first WtE plant at Deonar received environmental clearance. However, the 600 mt plant attracted severe opposition from locals and experts. In 2019, a 5 MW plant in Bengaluru was also opposed by activists. Such instances have become fairly common, given their potential risks to health, sustainability and environment.
Administrative and regulatory blockages have also hampered the successful implementation of these plants. In 2021, BMC made a provision of Rs 650 million in the 2021-22 budget for a second WtE plant at Deonar. However, this was put on hold. In 2018, the foundation stone for a 15 MW WtE plant was laid at the Bandwari landfill site in Haryana. Four years have passed and the plant is not yet operational. A proposal to increase the capacity of the plant from 15 MW to 25 MW also met with severe backlash from the local population. The plant is now expected to become operational by 2024, further highlighting the slow pace at which such projects are being developed.
A lack of coordination among state bodies, urban local bodies and the government, for both waste management and operation of WtE plants, has further aggravated the problem. Policy and financial support from the government also remains limited in the WtE segment vis-à-vis solar, wind and other emerging clean energy sectors. WtE plants have also faced challenges in obtaining long-term power purchase agreements from discoms and state electricity boards, making them an unattractive and unviable pursuit.
Outlook for the future
The first WtE plant was established in India almost four decades ago, yet the concept remains new in the country even today. Historical evidence of failed efforts in various Indian cities has created a lack of confidence among the public regarding the effectiveness of WtE plants. However, it is not necessary that history would repeat itself, provided the necessary steps are put in place at the earliest. First and foremost, it is important to reiterate the symbiotic relationship between recycling and the success of WtE. Until proper waster segregation and recycling becomes a norm, the WtE endeavour may not have a significant impact on power generation and emission control. It is also crucial to develop indigenous technologies that are suitable for the composition and type of waste generated in India.
With growing urbanisation, the gap between the quantity of waste generated and the capacity of urban bodies to manage that waste will increase immensely. Appropriate government policies and regulations will be needed to ensure effective management and utilisation of waste.
By Kasvi Singh