Critical new technologies hold key to emerging energy trends

Waste-to-energy, sorting plants and biogas emerge at forefront as spotlight grows on waste management

THE term "new energy" covers a number of concepts - some established, some new, including the use of new technologies to generate electrical energy and increasingly capture the production of "future fuels", such as hydrogen, ammonia and methanol, says Michael Harrison, a partner in Ashurst LLP who's based in Singapore.

Harrison, along with colleagues, has been involved in over 30 waste projects, and is currently working on 10 projects, all of which are at various stages of development.

"We are seeing a focus - as yet a niche one - on technologies to create biogas and bio-methane and liquid fuels and feedstocks from waste streams. Things are moving beyond the 'proven' technologies, that combust waste to produce steam to create electricity, and into the realms of deriving hydrogen from waste streams and cracking waste plastics to create fuels and feedstocks," he tells The Business Times (BT) in an interview.

"There is also an increasing buzz around biogas or bio-methane, where food waste and organic waste are processed into methane for blending into mainstream gas distribution networks."

Commercial, industrial and municipal waste can often be reused for the benefit of those who produce it and for society at large. Commercial and industrial (C&I) waste and municipal solid waste (MSW) often contain materials that can be recycled and, if not recyclable, can be used as feedstock for waste-to-energy (WTE) projects.

"(This) means that those wastes do not go to a landfill - which, in itself, has very real benefits to society: organic waste in landfill gives rise to landfill gas (comprising methane and carbon dioxide) as it decomposes; methane and carbon dioxide are both greenhouse gases which, when emitted to the climate system, give rise to climate change," says Harrison.

The use of C&I waste and MSW to generate electrical energy and produce future fuel reduces greenhouse-gas emissions. And the benefit to those that produce these wastes is that the energy or feedstock can, in some cases, become part of a virtuous loop. For instance, combustible parts of C&I can produce energy that can feed back into district heating or cooling systems for customers that produce the C&I, he adds.

The next level

WTE, sorting plants and biological treatment (biogas) are important as the spotlight on waste management grows larger in global efforts to protect the environment.

"In the absence of sorting plants - dry and wet material recovery facilities, WTE facilities and anaerobic digestion technologies - it is likely that waste will go to landfills," says Harrison.

In some parts of the world, even landfills represent progress in efforts to protect the environment and oceans, as pollution becomes an ever-rising challenge. Taking WTE and sorting to the next level helps in further protecting oceans and undeveloped land. The use of sorting plants also allows for the recycling of materials that might otherwise have to be produced using energy and to transport both raw materials and finished products to the point of use, he adds.

"Anaerobic digestion plants are likely to increase in use, in particular in the context of the organic fraction of the waste stream and in the context of the processing and treatment of waste water - again, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions," Harrison tells BT.

In the field of waste management, the collection and recycling of plastics is important because of the mass of plastic produced each year (made from hydrocarbons - fossil fuels) and in the absence of collection, plastics are finding their way into our waterways and oceans and, increasingly, into the global food chain.

"The collection and recycling of plastic allows some plastics to be recycled, but not all. In fact, the majority of plastics produced are not capable of being recycled effectively using current mechanical thermal technology," says Harrison.

"In more recent times, technologies are being developed and deployed to allow the chemical recycling of plastics to reduce plastics to their original compounds, and to reuse those compounds to produce new plastics or to refine those compounds to produce future fuels, including sustainable aviation fuel."

Michael Harrison of Ashurst LLP says there is an increasing buzz around biogas or bio-methane, where food waste and organic waste are processed into methane. PHOTO: MICHAEL HARRISON

Of the virgin plastic produced since 1950 and is no longer in use, it is estimated that, by mass, 9 per cent has been recycled, 12 per cent has been treated thermally, and 79 per cent has been discarded or disposed of via landfills (the vast majority, other than by safe disposal, to controlled or sanitary landfill). Any initiative that increases the recyclability of plastic has to be good, including chemical treatment to allow for the production of recycled plastics or liquid fuels. But the phasing-out of plastics that cannot be recycled is just as important.

Harrison says that the pace at which the recycling industry is moving to a quality-based approach is a function of both technology (critically chemical recycling) and the market for recyclables. In respect of plastics, as the price of hydrocarbons rises (to produce virgin plastics), so the demand for recyclables increases - in more developed markets, at least. As demand for recyclables (and price) increases, so do collection rates.

There is a role for the government in respect of all the materials that may be recycled - the provision of funding to allow effective separation at source and collection from source. For example, the introduction of container deposit schemes that encourage the depositing of containers which can be recycled by providing for a payment to be made with the deposit of each container.

Harrison says that for a circular economy to work in real life in the context of waste, the model requires policy settings that encourage the separation of waste streams at source - critically, the organic waste stream from the inorganic - and recyclables, including cardboard and paper, glass, metals and plastics, as well as the commitment to move to zero use of landfills.

As for obtaining financing, he says it is important to keep in mind that waste projects of any kind are environmental and greenhouse-gas abatement projects and as such, many of these are equity-financed rather than debt/project-financed.

"In more developed markets where there is reasonable certainty of the mass of waste arising, waste projects are able to obtain debt/project financing. Critical to project financing is getting comfortable with a change-in-law risk in any country, as well as understanding the practical impact that change in law may have on a project," Harrison tells BT.

"The more developed the market for waste, critically the more established the collection systems, the greater the certainty of the mass of waste that will be available," he adds.

Certainty or at least relative certainty around these matters is key to any waste project, whether equity-funded only or debt and equity funded, he says.

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