Waste to energy providers have the potential to solve two pressing problems:
- Managing our huge and increasing volumes of waste efficiently and cost effectively, and
- Creating more sustainable energy with negligible environmental impacts to meet growing global demand
But many waste to energy projects represent significant capital expenditure and significant potential risk.
There are huge public and regulatory pressures to move towards less landfilling, restrict the use of incineration, and generate more sustainable energy. At the same time, waste industry stakeholders and energy infrastructure owners need to make an attractive return on their investment.
Whilst many stakeholders are well-informed about these demands, it can still be challenging to choose a waste to energy technology partner that is professional, commercial, and transparent. Not to mention choosing one with proven and proprietary technology and know-how. This article highlights the key factors that our partners have revealed were important to them.
Waste to energy production solves these major global problems
The world is suffocating in waste. According to the World Bank, 2.01 billion tonnes of waste are produced annually. This is expected to grow to 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050.
Solid waste treatment and disposal generated an estimated 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. That’s 5% of the global total.
Waste to energy technologies offer a potential solution to this problem, by converting solid waste into energy. Indeed, according to Statistica, the global waste-to-energy market “is expected to rise from 28.4 billion U.S. dollars in 2017 to almost 43 billion U.S. dollars in 2024”.
When used the right way, waste to energy technologies can offer cleaner, more sustainable and cheaper energy that will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and help in the global fight against climate change.
However, not all waste to energy technologies and providers offer the same benefits. Some are more costly than others in terms of capex and running costs. Some do little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
That’s why it’s so important to choose wisely. Here are the questions waste industry stakeholders and energy infrastructure developers/owners should ask when considering the viability of investing in a waste to energy technology provider.
Questions to ask when choosing any technology partner
Whether you’re choosing a new webcam to improve the quality of your Zoom calls, choosing an email provider for your company’s outbound marketing, or choosing a data storage service, these same questions will apply:
1. Does the technology suit your desired application?
Be clear on what you want the technology for. What problem are you solving? What specifications do you need to achieve that? Take time to define your goals before reviewing the available options.
2. Does your proposed partner have in-depth knowledge of their technology?
The more a provider knows about their technology, the more they can advise you on your needs. Consider how long they’ve been around. How many customers or clients they’ve served. Did they develop their technology in-house? Can they explain how their technology works in terms that you or anyone in your business can understand? A provider with its own proven and proprietary technology is more likely to be able to offer this.
3. Are they able to pivot and customize their technology for your needs?
Client needs are often complex, varied and specific. Be ruthless when seeking proof that your prospective partner can deliver on them. Again, a provider with its own proven and proprietary technology is more likely to be able to pivot and customize to suit you.
4. Do they have a proven desire and ability to innovate?
A provider that keeps updating and improving its technology is likely to remain at the forefront of its field. They will be better able to support you, as well as offering ongoing improvements and refinements where possible.
Find out how much they spend on research and development, and compare that with their competitors. Find out whether they work with other technology partners to improve their overall service. This openness and ability to work with others is often a sign of how seriously they take innovation.
Questions to ask when choosing a waste to energy technology partner
Now for the more specific questions we’ve found to be most useful when comparing waste to energy technology providers:
1. How long has the company been around?
Waste to energy technologies have enjoyed an investment boom in recent years as interest in the sector has increased. But this has led to new providers popping up who may lack the proven experience and expertise you need. The longer they’ve been around, and the more successfully operating plants they’ve built, the more confidence you can have in them.
2. What waste to energy process are they using?
By far the most commonly used form of waste to energy “technology” in use today is incineration. Incineration uses high temperature thermal treatment to convert waste material into flue gas, ash and heat. In some cases, incineration plants capture that heat to use as energy. In some cases, they don’t. Gasification is the process of using thermochemical treatment to convert organic or fossil fuel- based carbonaceous materials into synthesis gas (syngas). (For more on this, read our article Energy from waste: the pros and cons of advanced gasification vs incineration)
3. How energy efficient is their process?
A typical energy-from-waste incineration plant produces an average 550 kWh (kilowatt hour) per metric tonne of waste feedstock material. The most advanced gasification technology, by contrast, produces an average of 930 kWh per metric tonne of feedstock – a roughly 70% increase in efficiency, which makes it more cost efficient.
4. What is the environmental impact of their process?
During incineration, greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. For example, average CO2 emissions levels from incineration are 1.8kg/kWh.
Incineration also produces fly ash, which commonly contains hazardous toxins such as silicon dioxide, aluminium oxide, nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, calcium oxide, hydrogen fluoride and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Fly ash may also contain poisonous compounds such as mercury, arsenic, ammonia, cadmium, cobalt, lead and chromium.
Incinerator plants require extensive flue gas treatment for them to meet environmental compliance regulations. A considerable amount of an incineration plant’s infrastructure (and capex) is devoted to the cleaning of exhaust gases.
By contrast, the most advanced gasification technology does not produce fly ash. It also emits an average of 70% less greenhouse gases per generated MW compared with incineration. Where gasification is used to convert organic material into synthesis gas, it is considered a renewable energy source.
As a result of these differences in efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions, more and more waste management stakeholders are considering working with a gasification partner to convert their waste into cleaner, cheaper energy.
Questions to ask when choosing a gasification partner
There are also differences between gasification providers to consider, such as…
1. Do they really use gasification?
Several companies claim to use gasification. But there are differences in the processes on offer, so be sure to ask for details. Some gasification providers use reactors in which the feedstock is volatilized and combusted, so the output is not syngas but a kind of flue gas, making the process similar to incineration – less clean, less efficient and more costly.
(For more on this, read our introductory article What is gasification?)
2. Is it commercially proven?
Some gasification providers are so new that they have little to no evidence of their ability to operate at commercial scale. Others have only ever completed limited trials, or rely on speculative models.
Taking EQTEC as an example of the opposite scenario, we have audited data for our plant in Spain showing more than 125,000 engine operating hours. This is more than any other gasification provider that we’re aware of. The plant has been operational since 2011, and has been audited independently every year since 2015 in accordance with Spanish law by a company called Marsan.
3. What kind of capability can they offer?
Our data reveal that this gasification plant is capable of operating at an annual availability rate of more than 90%.
Our advanced gasification technology is also modular in scale, sized from 1MWe to 25MWe. This gives us the flexibility to offer a range of on-site applications when it comes to location and output. Both are key considerations when calculating efficiency, carbon footprint, and internal rate of return (IRR).
4. What kind of IRRs can they offer?
One big drawback with many energy sources is that they rely on government subsidies. But flexible gasification plants, like EQTEC’s, don’t rely on or need this.
- Utility-scale solar or wind energy projects offer a typical unlevered internal rate of return (IRR) of mid-to-high single digits;
- The IRR on industrial capital for waste incineration power generation generally falls between 6-10%;
Using EQTEC’s technology as an example, our projects typically deliver an unlevered, unsubsidised IRR of 12-14%.
5. Do they offer a warranty on operational performance?
At EQTEC, we offer performance warranties on 6-24 months of operations following commissioning. During the warranty period we are involved in the operations and maintenance of the new facility.
Performance benchmarks are based on projections of a project’s financial model, and include attributes such as kilowatt hours of electricity and heat generation (which is determined by syngas output and purity), system availability, and ultimately the revenue generated by the operation of the plant.
6. How many different kinds of feedstock can they process?
Some gasification providers may be limited as to the variety of different waste materials – also known as “feedstock” – they can use in their gasifiers.
At EQTEC, we have commercial operation data and years of research and development testing the results of gasifying over 50 different types of waste feedstocks, including:
- Olive stones
- Nut shells
- Grape bagasse
- Wood chips
- Pine cones
- Forestry clippings
- Demolition rubble
- Municipal solid waste – also known as refuse-derived fuel
This is just a small sample. But if you’re not concerned about how many different feedstocks a gasification provider can process, do make sure they have experience of processing the ones you need.
7. How many different applications does their syngas have?
Part of the efficiency of gasification is due to the variety of types of output from the process.
For example, at EQTEC we can use our syngas to produce:
- Electricity, for captive industrial use or to sell to the national electricity grid
- Heat/steam, for industrial process applications
- Hydrogen, for fuel cells
- Liquid biofuels, by applying a Fischer-Tropsch gas-to-liquids module
- Synthetic Natural Gas, via a methanation process, to sell to the national gas grid
As a byproduct we can generate Biochar – which in turn can be used as a fertilizer for soil, an additive to remove or absorb contaminated soils, a filtering material for clearing heavy metals from waste-water, or as an additive in cosmetic products.
8. Can they produce the right energy for your application?
What kind of product do you require to make your project economically viable?
Firstly, be sure that your proposed gasification provider has experience producing the kind of output you need.
Secondly, as seen in the previous point, a proven and proprietary gasification technology which offers a wider variety of applications is more likely to ensure economic viability, because it offers alternative options in case circumstances change.
9. Can they predict the energy output of your chosen feedstock accurately?
Not every gasification provider has the operational or research data to provide this. But the more data your proposed partner has, the better able they are to predict this for you.
The more accurate the prediction, the easier it is for you to work this into your financial projections.
10. Do they own their own technology?
Some providers may incorporate elements of their technology from other companies. For peace of mind, be sure to enquire whether your proposed provider actually owns the technology they use — as well as the extent to which it is proven and proprietary.
11. How easily can they adapt their technology to your installation needs?
Technology provided by EQTEC for advanced gasification plants is modular in scale, sized from 1MWe to 25Mwe. These modular units offer a decentralized, distributed gasification of waste capability, suitable for co-location with commercial factories or on the existing sites of waste management companies.
In the case of waste operators, to have an ability to have modular waste gasification plants at several existing waste depots is likely preferable to carrying raw waste from multiple origins to a single large, centralized ‘stick-build’ facility, such as an incinerator.
12. Can they provide you with a full 3D CAD plant design and entire plant specifications?
By combining the capabilities of our proprietary 50+ feedstock Syngas Composition Analysis Library and our Kinetic Simulations Software, EQTEC engineers can provide customers with a full 3D CAD plant design and entire plant specifications.
Based on a customer’s specification of feedstock and throughput volumes, this means that our project design services can provide:
- 3D computer aided mechanical design and general plant layout
- Output syngas composition
- Electricity and/or steam output projections
- Full plant costing
- Project development, construction and commissioning timelines
- Key operating parameters
13. What third-party validation or testimonials can they produce?
Testimonials are always useful – especially when large capex investments are involved.
In the case of EQTEC, for example, world-leading gas engine company Jenbacher has testified to the quality, stability and power-generating ability of our syngas.
To choose the right waste to energy technology provider, be sure to ask the right questions
This may be an obvious conclusion. But it is important to take the time to define what waste management needs you have, what kinds of energy would be most useful for your situation, and what kind of IRR you’re looking for. Only then can you make an informed decision.
Then, be ruthless when seeking proof from prospective waste to energy / waste gasification technology providers before choosing to proceed.
Note: much of the data for this article was taken from a research note published by Arden Equity Research on 15 June 2020.
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