About Miriam Fernandez

Miriam Fernandez is a student from Monterrey, Mexico majoring in Science, Technology and International Affairs at Georgetown University. Although she is pursuing a concentration in Business, Growth and Development and a certificate in International Business, Miriam holds a strong interest for topics related to energy and the environment, particularly in alternative energy resources that utilize waste as feedstock. Having taken courses on environmental geoscience and energy in China, Miriam hopes to continue learning about how to cope with current environmental challenges in a sustainable manner and how to merge these with innovative business solutions.

Waste-to-Energy in China: Perspectives

garbage-chinaChina is the world’s largest MSW generator, producing as much as 175 million tons of waste every year. With a current population surpassing 1.37 billion and exponential trends in waste output expected to continue, it is estimated that China’s cities will need to develop an additional hundreds of landfills and waste-to-energy plants to tackle the growing waste management crisis.

China’s three primary methods for municipal waste management are landfills, incineration, and composting. Nevertheless, the poor standards and conditions they operate in have made waste management facilities generally inefficient and unsustainable. For example, discharge of leachate into the soil and water bodies is a common feature of landfills in China. Although incineration is considered to be better than landfills and have grown in popularity over the years, high levels of toxic emissions have made MSW incineration plants a cause of concern for public health and environment protection.

Prevalent Issues

Salman Zafar, a renowned waste management, waste-to-energy and bioenergy expert was interviewed to discuss waste opportunities in China. As Mr. Zafar commented on the current problems with these three primary methods of waste management used by most developing countries, he said, “Landfills in developing countries, like China and India, are synonymous with huge waste dumps which are characterized by rotting waste, spontaneous fires, toxic emissions and presence of rag-pickers, birds, animals and insects etc.” Similarly, he commented that as cities are expanding rapidly worldwide, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find land for siting new landfills.

On incineration, Zafar asserted that this type of waste management method has also become a controversial issue due to emission concerns and high technology costs, especially in developing countries. Many developers try to cut down costs by going for less efficient air pollution control systems”. Mr. Zafar’s words are evident in the concerns reflected in much of the data ­that waste management practices in China are often poorly monitored and fraudulent, for which data on emission controls and environmental protection is often elusive.

Similarly, given that management of MSW involves the collection, transportation, treatment and disposal of waste, Zafar explains why composting has also such a small number relative to landfills for countries like China. He says, “Composting is a difficult proposition for developing countries due to absence of source-segregation. Organic fraction of MSW is usually mixed with all sorts of waste including plastics, metals, healthcare wastes and industrial waste which results in poor quality of compost and a real risk of introduction of heavy metals into agricultural soils.” Given that China’s recycling sector has not yet developed to match market opportunities, even current treatment of MSW calls for the need of professionalization and institutionalization of the secondary materials industry.

While MSW availability is not an issue associated with the potential of the resource given its dispersion throughout the country and its exponential increase throughout, around 50 percent of the studies analyzed stated concerns for the high moisture content and low caloric value of waste in China, making it unattractive for WTE processes.

Talking about how this issue can be dealt with, Mr. Zafar commented that a plausible option to increase the calorific value of MSW is to mix it with agricultural residues or wood wastes. Thus, the biomass resources identified in most of the studies as having the greatest potential are not only valuable individually but can also be processed together for further benefits.

Top Challenges

Among the major challenges on the other hand, were insufficient or elusive data, poor infrastructure, informal waste collection systems and the lack of laws and regulations in China for the industry. Other challenges included market risk, the lack of economic incentives and the high costs associated with biomass technologies. Nevertheless, given that the most recurring challenges cited across the data were related to infrastructure and laws and regulations, it is evident that China’s biomass policy is in extreme need of reform.

China’s unsustainable management of waste and its underutilized potential of MSW feedstock for energy and fuel production need urgent policy reform for the industry to develop. Like Mr. Zafar says, “Sustainable waste management demands an integration of waste reduction, waste reuse, waste recycling, and energy recovery from waste and landfilling. It is essential that China implements an integrated solid waste management strategy to tackle the growing waste crisis”.

Future Perspectives

China’s government will play a key role in this integrated solid waste management strategy. Besides increased cooperation efforts between the national government and local governments to encourage investments in solid waste management from the private sector and foster domestic recycling practices, first, there is a clear need to establish specialized regulatory agencies (beyond the responsibilities of the State Environmental Protection Administration and the Ministry of Commerce) that can provide clearer operating standards for current WTE facilities (like sanitary landfills and incinerators) as well as improve the supervision of them.

It is essential that China implements an integrated solid waste management strategy to tackle the growing waste crisis

It is essential that China implements an integrated solid waste management strategy to tackle the growing waste crisis

Without clear legal responsibility assigned to specialized agencies, pollutant emissions and regulations related to waste volumes and operating conditions may continue to be disregarded. Similarly, better regulation in MSW management for efficient waste collection and separation is needed to incentivize recycling at the individual level by local residents in every city. Recycling after all is complementary to waste-to-energy, and like Salman Zafar explains, countries with the highest recycling rates also have the best MSW to energy systems (like Germany and Sweden).

Nevertheless, without a market for reused materials, recycling will take longer to become a common practice in China. As Chinese authorities will not be able to stop the waste stream from growing but can reduce the rate of growth, the government’s role in promoting waste management for energy production and recovery is of extreme importance.

Biomass Energy in China

biomass-chinaBiomass energy in China has been developing at a rapid pace. The installed biomass power generation capacity in China increased sharply from 1.4 GW in 2006 to 14.88 GW in 2017. While the energy share of biomass remains relatively low compared to other sources of renewable energy, China plans to increase the proportion of biomass energy up to 15 percent and total installed capacity of biomass power generation to 30 GW by 2030.

In terms of impact, the theoretical biomass energy resource in China is about 5 billion tons coal equivalent, which equals 4 times of all energy consumption. As per conservative estimates, currently China is only using 5 percent of its total biomass potential.

According to IRENA, the majority of biomass capacity is in Eastern China, with the coastal province of Shandong accounting for 14 percent of the total alone. While the direct burning of mass for heat remains the primary use of biomass in China, in 2009, composition of China’s biomass power generation consisted in 62 percent of straw direct-fired power generation and 29 percent of waste incineration, with a mix of other feedstock accounting for the remaining 9 percent.

Biomass Resources in China

Major biomass resources in China include waste from agriculture, forestry, industries, animal manure and sewage, and municipal solid waste. While the largest contributing sources are estimated to be residues from annual crop production like wheat straw, much of the straw and stalk are presently used for cooking and heating in rural households at low efficiencies. Therefore, agricultural residues, forestry residues, and garden waste were found to be the most cited resources with big potential for energy production in China.

Agricultural residues are derived from agriculture harvesting such as maize, rice and cotton stalks, wheat straw and husks, and are most available in Central and northeastern China where most of the large stalk and straw potential is located. Because straw and stalks are produced as by-products of food production systems, they are perceived to be sustainable sources of biomass for energy that do not threaten food security.

Furthermore, it is estimated that China produces around 700 Mt of straw per year, 37 percent of which is corn straw, 28 percent rice, 20 percent wheat and 15 percent from various other crops. Around 50 percent of this straw is used for fertilizers, for which 350 Mt of straw is available for energy production per year.

Biomass resources are underutilized across China

Biomass resources are underutilized across China

Forestry residues are mostly available in the southern and central parts of China. While a few projects that use forestry wastes like tree bark and wood processing wastes are under way, one of the most cited resources with analyzed potential is garden waste. According to research, energy production from garden waste biomass accounted for 20.7 percent of China’s urban residential electricity consumption, or 12.6 percent of China’s transport gasoline demand in 2008.

Future Perspectives

The Chinese government believes that biomass feedstock should neither compete with edible food crops nor cause carbon debt or negative environmental impacts. As biomass takes on an increasing significant role in the China’s national energy-mix, future research specific to technology assessment, in addition to data collection and supply chain management of potential resources is necessary to continue to understand how biomass can become a game-changer in China’s energy future.

References

IRENA, 2014. Renewable Energy Prospects: China, REmap 2030 analysis. IRENA, Abu Dhabi. www.irena.org/remap

National Academy of Engineering and NRC, 2007: Energy Futures and Urban Air Pollution: Challenges for China and the United States.

Xingang, Z., Zhongfu, T., Pingkuo, L, 2013. Development goal of 30 GW for China’s biomass power generation: Will it be achieved? Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 25, September 2013, 310–317.

Xingang, Z., Jieyu, W., Xiaomeng, L., Tiantian, F., Pingkuo, L, 2012. Focus on situation and policies for biomass power generation in China. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 16, Issue 6, August 2012, 3722–3729.

Li, J., Jinming, B. MOA/DOE Project Expert Team, 1998. Assessment of Biomass Resource Availability in China. China Environmental Science Press, Beijing, China.

Klimowicz, G., 2014. “China’s big plans for biomass,” Eco-Business, Global Biomass Series, accessed on Apr 6, 2015.

Shi, Y., Ge, Y., Chang, J., Shao, H., and Tang, Y., 2013. Garden waste biomass for renewable and sustainable energy production in China: Potential, challenges and development. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 22 (2013) 432–437

Xu, J. and Yuan, Z, 2015. “An overview of the biomass energy policy in China,” BESustainable, May 21, 2015.