Waste to energy in India: Time to up the ante?

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Date: July 10, 2023

The Waste to Energy or WtE market in India is witnessing peak demand, especially in a post-pandemic era, where people have recognised the need for energy through sustainability. India generates 62 million tonnes of waste each year, of which 43 million tonnes (70%) are collected, of which about 12 million tonnes are treated, and 31 million tonnes are dumped in landfill sites. According to government statistics, the total estimated energy generation potential from urban and industrial organic waste in India is approximately 5,690 MW.

But as of today, India has only 14 WtE plants and the potential remains severely underutilised. With adequate policy interventions and state government schemes, industry experts believe that the WtE sector may see an upsurge and help India handle the twin challenges of waste accumulation and renewable energy generation. 

India is home to the largest population in the world and over the years, we have created a mammoth workforce and created gigantic industrial belts. With the increase in urbanisation, industrialization, and ever-evolving lifestyles, the country has also seen a spike in dependence on fossil fuels and environmental degradation.

Around 55 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) and 38 million gallons of sewage are produced annually in India’s urban areas. In addition to this, industries also produce a considerable volume of solid and liquid waste. The production of waste in India is expected to soar in the upcoming years. As more people move to cities and as income levels rise, consumption levels and waste creation rates are expected to rise. The amount of waste produced in India is predicted to increase at a rate of 1-1.33% annually per person.

India’s appetite for electricity has grown manifold, and to fulfil the said demand, we are exploring various paths of renewable energy. In the midst of this challenge, the waste-to-energy industry, which facilitates power generation by using existential waste material, is staring at an excellent opportunity.

According to the Ministry of New & Renewable Energy, the total estimated energy generation potential from urban and industrial organic waste in India is approximately 5,690 MW. The major sources of this potential are Urban Solid Waste (1,247 MW), Urban Liquid Waste (375 MW), Paper (liquid waste254 MW) and Processing and preserving of meat (liquid waste, 182 MW).

But is this potential being effectively realised?

What is Waste to Energy or WTE?

WTE is a process that converts several waste materials into usable forms of energy. Depending on the composition and characteristics of the waste stream, waste to energy can be implemented using a variety of technologies that may involve thermal, biological or chemical processes.

The process of turning waste into energy prevents trash from going to landfills and transforms it into something actually useful. Waste-to-energy technologies with varied environmental impacts and levels of efficiency enable this. The industry is quite promising, even though it is largely underutilised globally, especially at this point when the world’s energy insecurity is reaching newer and admittedly alarming levels.

According to a 2018 study, several EU countries, including Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands have managed to keep landfills to less than 4%, instead redirecting the majority of municipal waste either to recycling and composting or to waste-to-energy technologies via Municipal Waste Treatment (MWT).

Waste-to-energy technologies are divided into different types based on the process through which the waste is turned into energy: thermal only, which includes incineration, thermo-chemical, mechanical & thermal, and biochemical. The most widely used method of WtE is incineration, which is also one of the least favourable options, because incineration plants are costly to operate and have higher rates of emissions themselves.

Dendro liquid energy (DLE) is probably the most promising up-and-coming, near-zero emissions waste-to-energy technology that treats waste biologically. DLE plants operate at moderate temperatures between 150°C and 250°C, which makes them about four times more efficient in generating electricity when compared to anaerobic digestion and other WtE solutions.

Converting waste into an energy gold mine

China recognised the potential of Waste to Energy approximately 15 years ago, ahead of the Beijing Olympics. The country, then the world’s most populated nation, was battling massive garbage accumulations. In line with hosting the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China approached Belgium-based company Keppel Seghers to import WtE technology. As of 2023. China has 765 working WtE plants across the country with a power generation capacity of 5-55MW.

In India, the Waste to Energy or WtE journey is just over 2 decades old. Jindal ITF Urban Infrastructure Limited was one of the first few companies to set up a vast WtE plant in a PPP model in Delhi’s Timarpur, Okhla. India isn’t a stranger to WtE technology, since biomass power plants have been functioning in the country. But traditional waste disposal practises in India include landfilling, burning of trash (including industrial waste, food waste, and other hazardous waste), and garbage collection by unorganised waste pickers, all of which emit carbon dioxide. The number of incineration plants and waste-to-energy facilities has expanded in India.

According to a research report by Mordor Intelligence, the Indian waste-to-energy market is estimated at US$ 1.1 billion in 2023. It is expected to rise at a CAGR of more than 2.56% during the forecast period.

A steep ladder of success to climb

The domestic market for WtE became very lucrative post the launch of the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan in 2014. Along with constructing sanitation lavatories for each household, the mission’s other top priorities were waste management i.e., dump site remedies and waste recycling. In 2021, under Swachch Bharat Abhiyan 2.0, guidelines were issued from the perspective of waste management.

India has over 35,000 Urban Local Bodies (ULB) but many do not have a concrete idea as to how to make use of waste management techniques and technologies. Industry leaders believe that the ULBs in India need to have a clear vision on waste recovery, waste recycling and converting combustible waste into energy.

Speaking to IBT, Brijesh Panchal, Sustainability and CSR expert, has said that the market growth of India’s WtE market is growing at a much lower pace. One of the primary reasons is the lack of policy intervention from both the Central government and state governments.

“Unlike the solar energy sector, we do not have too many policies or subsidy schemes to support WtE. The cost of setting up an incineration plant could be high. There is no denying that India’s WtE energy is growing significantly. However, I think it is time for state governments to become more proactive to support the industry,” Mr. Panchal said.

WtE in India is getting its due recognition and support, but from selected regions and states. he feels that the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi provide lucrative markets for the industry to thrive.

The Indian Government has recognized waste to energy as a renewable technology and supports it through various subsidies and incentives. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy is actively promoting all the technology options available for energy recovery from urban and industrial wastes. Even among states, Gujarat Electricity Regulatory Commission (GERC) is a case in point, which has floated a discussion paper to determine the state’s generic tariff for waste-to-energy plants.

In June 2023, it was reported that the Delhi Metro has become the first-ever project in the country to receive power generated from a waste-to-energy plant. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) said it has started receiving 2 MW power from a 12 MW capacity waste-to-energy plant set up in Ghazipur.

Similarly, the Telangana government also announced its decision to set up five more WtE plants in addition to the one currently operational in Hyderabad’s legacy dump yard Jawaharnagar in a bid to be able to generate as much as 101 MW of power by December 2024.

On the whole, this industry holds significant potential as an investment and business opportunity, provided that the right policies and frameworks are in place. With effective management and utilization of waste, the waste-to-energy industry has the capacity to address environmental issues while also providing economic advantages.

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