Trends in Waste-to-Energy Industry

The increasing clamor for energy and satisfying it with a combination of conventional and renewable resources is a big challenge. Accompanying energy problems in almost all parts of the world, another problem that is assuming critical proportions is that of urban waste accumulation. The quantity of waste produced all over the world amounted to more than 12 billion tonnes in 2006, with estimates of up to 13 billion tonnes in 2011. The rapid increase in population coupled with changing lifestyle and consumption patterns is expected to result in an exponential increase in waste generation of up to 18 billion tonnes by year 2020. Ironically, most of the wastes are disposed of in open fields, along highways or burnt wantonly.

Size of the Industry

Around 130 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) are combusted annually in over 600 waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities globally that produce electricity and steam for district heating and recovered metals for recycling. The global market for biological and thermochemical waste-to-energy technologies is expected to reach USD 7.4 billion in 2013 and grow to USD 29.2 billion by 2022. Incineration, with energy recovery, is the most common waste-to-energy method employed worldwide. Since 1995, the global WTE industry increased by more than 16 million tonnes of MSW. Over the last five years, waste incineration in Europe has generated between an average of 4% to 8% of their countries’ electricity and between an average of 10% to 15% of the continent’s domestic heat.

Advanced thermal technologies, like pyrolysis, and anaerobic digestion systems are beginning to make deep inroads in the waste-to-energy sector and are expected to increase their respective market shares on account of global interest in integrated waste management framework in urban areas. Scarcity of waste disposal sites coupled with growing waste volumes and solid waste management challenges are generating high degree of interest in energy-from-waste systems among policy-makers, urban planners, entrepreneurs, utility companies etc.

Regional Trends

Currently, the European nations are recognized as global leaders of waste-to-energy movement. They are followed behind by the Asia Pacific region and North America respectively. In 2007 there are more than 600 WTE plants in 35 different countries, including large countries such as China and small ones such as Bermuda. Some of the newest plants are located in Asia. China is witnessing a surge in waste-to-energy installations and has plans to establish 125 new waste-to-energy plants during the twelfth five-year plan ending 2015.

Incineration is the most common waste-to-energy method used worldwide.

The United States processes 14 percent of its trash in WTE plants. Denmark, on the other hand, processes more than any other country – 54 percent of its waste materials. As at the end of 2008, Europe had more than 475 WTE plants across its regions – more than any other continent in the world – that processes an average of 59 million tonnes of waste per annum. In the same year, the European WTE industry as a whole had generated revenues of approximately US$4.5bn.

Legislative shifts by European governments have seen considerable progress made in the region’s WTE industry as well as in the implementation of advanced technology and innovative recycling solutions. The most important piece of WTE legislation pertaining to the region has been the European Union’s Landfill Directive, which was officially implemented in 2001 which has resulted in the planning and commissioning of an increasing number of WTE plants over the past five years.

Rice Straw As Bioenergy Resource

The cultivation of rice results in two types of biomass residues – straw and husk – having attractive potential in terms of energy. Rice husk, the main by-product from rice milling, accounts for roughly 22% of paddy weight, while rice straw to paddy ratio ranges from 1.0 to 4.3. Although the technology for rice husk utilization is well-established worldwide, rice straw is sparingly used as a source of renewable energy. One of the main reasons for the preferred use of husk is its easy procurement. In case of rice straw, however, its collection is difficult and its availability is limited to harvest time.

Rice straw can either be used alone or mixed with other biomass materials in direct combustion, whereby combustion boilers are used in combination with steam turbines to produce electricity and heat. The energy content of rice straw is around 14 MJ per kg at 10 percent moisture content.  The by-products are fly ash and bottom ash, which have an economic value and could be used in cement and/or brick manufacturing, construction of roads and embankments, etc.

Straw fuels have proved to be extremely difficult to burn in most combustion furnaces, especially those designed for power generation. The primary issue concerning the use of rice straw and other herbaceous biomass for power generation is fouling, slagging, and corrosion of the boiler due to alkaline and chlorine components in the ash. Europe, and in particular, Denmark, currently has the greatest experience with straw-fired power and CHP plants.

Because of the large amount of cereal grains (wheat and oats) grown in Denmark, the surplus straw plays a large role in the country’s renewable energy strategy. Technology developed includes combustion furnaces, boilers, and superheat concepts purportedly capable of operating with high alkali fuels and having handling systems which minimize fuel preparation.

A variety of methods are employed by the European plants to prepare straw for combustion. Most use automated truck unloading bridge cranes that clamp up to 12 bales at a time and stack them 4-5 bales high in covered storage. Some systems feed whole bales into the boiler. Probably the best known whole bale feeder is the “Vølund cigar feeding” concept, originally applied by Vølund (now Babcock and Wilcox-Vølund). Whole bales are pushed into the combustion chamber and the straw burned off the face of the bale.

However, the newer Danish plants have moved away from whole-bale systems to shredded straw feed for higher efficiency. For pulverized coal co-firing, the straw usually needs to be ground or cut to small sizes in order to burn completely within relatively short residence times (suspension fired systems) or to feed and mix upon injection with bed media in fluidized bed systems.

The chemical composition of feedstock has a major influence on the efficiency of biomass cogeneration. The low feedstock quality of rice straw is primarily determined by high ash content (10–17%) as compared with wheat straw (around 3%) and also high silica content in ash. On the other hand, rice straw as feedstock has the advantage of having a relatively low total alkali content, whereas wheat straw can typically have more than 25% alkali content in ash.

However, straw quality varies substantially within seasons as well as within regions. If straw is exposed to precipitation in the field, alkali and alkaline compounds are leached, improving the feedstock quality. In turn, moisture content should be less than 10% for combustion technology.

In straw combustion at high temperatures, potassium is transformed and combines with other alkali earth materials such as calcium. This in turn reacts with silicates, leading to the formation of tightly sintered structures on the grates and at the furnace wall. Alkali earths are also important in the formation of slag and deposits. This means that fuels with lower alkali content are less problematic when fired in a boiler.