June 30th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY NSW electricity grid now at 'crisis point'

EDITORIAL China's pivotal role in Trump-Kim summit

CANBERRA OBSERVED Throwing our 8ยข in the ring over sale of ABC

OPINION Why populism has become popular among the populace

MEDIA Ramsay Centre gets all that' left from ABC's Drum

ENERGY Solar panels leave hidden carbon footprint

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson conviction conundrum

ENERGY Don't let our waste go to waste: energise it

OPINION We've moved from low standards to no standards

LITERATURE AND CULTURE Christian humour through the ages: Dante, Chaucer and Cervantes

ECONOMICS Trump, China, the WTO and world trade

WHY BREXIT? A tight little island


MUSIC Contrary emotions: Following and leading the beat

CINEMA Incredibles 2: Just the average family of superheroes

BOOK REVIEW The main driver of our foreign policy

BOOK REVIEW Commitment at risk of obliteration



EDITORIAL By-elections a trial run for next federal election

Books promotion page

Don't let our waste go to waste: energise it

by Dr Brian Stanmore

News Weekly, June 30, 2018

The old adage “Where there’s muck, there’s brass” still applies to waste management.

In order to put a tonne of municipal solid waste (MSW) into a Victorian landfill, one must pay an Environment Protection Authority (EPA) tax of $63.28, or $31.21 in regional areas. The equivalent figures in NSW are $138.20 and $79.60.

There are better ways of managing our increasing output of waste.

Zero waste is a desirable destination, but experience, such as in the ACT, has shown that about 30 per cent of the waste stream cannot be recycled or composted. For example, what is to be done with an old, disintegrating pair of shoes? At present this kind of material must be sent to landfill. Apart from the rejection of the components (leather, plastics etc), this can lead to undesirable effects on the air and groundwater, even with careful management of the site.

An option that is in place overseas, especially in China, Japan and Europe, is to convert the residual material into heat and electrical energy by combustion. There are over 1,500 waste-to-energy (WtE) installations in operation worldwide, serving the dual purpose of disposing of waste and producing electrical energy.

A significant portion of the electricity so generated is deemed to be renewable, depending on the composition of the waste, and a subsidiary benefit in cold climates is the use of the low temperature waste heat for residential district heating in the local neighbourhood.

In Paris, the City of Light, five plants are in operation, one of which is mainly below ground and not an obvious commercial operation. In Copenhagen, an opposite approach was taken and a 500-metre ski slope is incorporated into the outside of the building. There is one in Monaco, disguised as an office building! Only the necessary truck movements are incongruous, but the placement of operations near collection points minimises these.

The major concern expressed to me is the generation of pollutants from combustion. Like all modern industry, these are controlled by legislation, and all emission limits are readily met in modern plants. In fact, the two of most interest, namely nitric oxide and particulates, are maintained at low levels because of a combination of the fuel composition and combustion temperatures, and efficient filters. In fact, the emissions from the diesel engines of the garbage trucks are of greater concern.

Dioxins, which were once of particular interest, are removed by appropriate gas treatment techniques. Even though combustion releases all the carbon in the fuel as carbon dioxide, its emission levels are less than from landfill, because the latter converts significant amounts of carbon into methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

From the combustion process, which is maintained at temperatures around 1000 degrees Celsius without auxiliary fuel, three product streams emerge: bottom ash, fly ash and flue gas. About 25 per cent of the feed waste emerges as bottom ash, which is sterile and effectively inert because of the combustion temperature. After the scrap metals are removed for sale, it is used as road base.

The fly ash, namely the fine particulates removed from the gas stream by filters, comprises about 2 per cent of the feed. Since it is rich in volatile metals like lead and zinc, it is mixed with cement and sent to a secure landfill. The flue gas discharged into the atmosphere is comparable in pollutants to the ambient air in city centres.

At the moment there are no operating WtE plants in Australia handling MSW, but approval has been granted for one to accept 400,000 tonnes a year of MSW from seven Perth councils. Ground has been broken for the project in the industrial zone of Fremantle.

The EPA in Western Australia and its Waste Authority have jointly concluded: “It has been demonstrated internationally that modern waste-to-energy plants can operate within strict emissions standards with acceptable environmental and health impacts to the community, when a plant is well designed and operated using best practice technologies and processes.” (Section 16(e), EPA Report 1468, April 2013).

In addition, the Kwinana WtE facility has been appointed as a Preferred Supplier of base-load renewable energy to West Australian local governments.

The adoption of WtE for MSW solves two problems: the accumulation and inefficient disposal of waste; and the transition to greater reliance on renewable energy. Unlike other renewable sources, though, the electricity supply is continuous, but can be implemented in a decentralised way.

One tonne of MSW can generate 300 to 600 kilowatt/hours of electricity, depending on the level of engineering. When internal consumption is ded­ucted, about 80 per cent of the output can be sold. Higher efficiencies can be supported in large installations, so it is advantageous for local councils to collaborate, as they are doing in Perth.

The councils would not need to change their mode of operation from the present situation. Garbage would be collected as usual and passed on to a WtE operator. This requires them to negotiate a contract to supply MSW for, say, 20 years, paying an agreed gate fee (about $100 a tonne) to an enterprise that would plan, design, finance, construct and operate the facility.

As the opening adage implies, there is money to be made in waste disposal. The business plan for the WA facility indicates that it will be fairly insensitive to electricity prices. The banks have shown no reluctance to finance the project. The major impediments lie in the domain of regulatory actions and public perceptions. For any project to succeed, these latter aspects need to be dealt with promptly.

Dr Brian Stanmore had a long career in both industry and academia at the Universities of Melbourne and Queensland focused on energy generation and emissions control. He was also involved with waste-to-energy plants in France.

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