More power from waste

With cities and towns expanding at the periphery,the land-hills of garbage move closer,and so does the danger to our health

Written by Isher Judge Ahluwalia | Published:March 6, 2013 2:31 am

I must begin by complimenting Finance Minister P. Chidambaram on his promise of support for converting urban waste to energy. This is the first time any finance minister has turned to look at the urban mess in our country. And what a mess that is!

As the FM pointed out,India tosses out several thousand tonnes of garbage each day. Delhi alone generates 7,700 tonne per day,Mumbai 7,025,Chennai 5,200,Ahmedabad 3,500 and Pune 1,500. Altogether,around 60 to 65 million tonne of garbage is generated in Indian cities and towns from households,offices,shops,hotels,hospitals,construction debris and street cleaning every year. By 2047,this is projected to increase to 260 million tonne. Plastic waste in India has increased fourfold since 1999,and is projected to increase tenfold by 2030.

The Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules of the Government of India had laid down the norms for collection,segregation,processing and disposal of waste in 2000. Thirteen years have elapsed,but the rules are still observed more in the breach. Door-to-door collection of municipal waste covers at most only about a half of the total waste,and segregation at the household level is a rarity. Collection from the community bins is not regular,and scientific processing is limited to a very small portion of the waste.

Overflowing community bins at street corners is a sight we are all familiar with. As and when the garbage is transported from the bins to the transfer stations,it is left there in open yards to rot and for rag-pickers to rummage through the rubbish. The waste slowly finds its way to the final dumpsite,where it is piled into land-hills. With cities and towns expanding at the periphery,the land-hills of garbage move closer,and so does the danger to our health.

The municipal waste crisis is crying out for multiple solutions. There were 100 projects sanctioned for solid waste management under JNNURM with a total cost of Rs 2,315 crore,of which only 25 have been completed so far. Most of these projects have only addressed the challenges of door-to-door collection. But there is growing awareness of the need for scientific disposal,including converting waste to energy.

The RDF and the fuel pelletisation were the first generation waste-to-energy products,which were not environment friendly and therefore not welcome. Burning these products in an uncontrolled manner (without requisite pollution control equipments for energy) released harmful gases in the environment. The second round of waste-to-energy plants faced the challenge from the mixed nature of Indian waste,which had very low calorific value. The Timarpur plant in the 1980s failed mainly because the technology was designed for segregated waste but it had to handle mixed waste. The Lucknow biomethanation plant in the 1990s failed because,again,it could handle only wet segregated waste but had to cope with mixed waste. Fortunately,in more recent years,the technology options in converting Indian solid waste into energy have expanded.

These columns have highlighted the variety of ways in which a number of cities have been grappling with the challenges of solid waste management and its scientific disposal. Pammal is a shining example of how to reduce,recycle and process the waste,emphasising all along segregation and community participation. Pune’s 14 decentralised biomethanation plants also prove the advantages of segregation at the household level and of doing away with the need for unnecessary transportation of waste,while organising rag-pickers for the purpose of recycling what is recyclable,and generating manure and electricity for the purpose of lighting streets in the neighbourhood. The 14 plants taken together use 70 tonne per day of segregated kitchen waste and generate 22 kilowatt hour (kWh) of net electricity after using some for running the plants themselves. Their dependence on land and on segregated waste limits their scope of operations.

Pune’s large-scale non-incineration-based thermal gasification plant,at the other end,has been designed to generate 10 megawatt (MW) electricity. Based on public-private partnership and state-of-the-art technology for Indian conditions of mixed waste,this plant uses patented thermal gasification technology to generate electricity. As of now,the plant uses 70 tonne of mixed (unsegregated) waste per day and generates 1 MW of electricity on an hourly basis,which is sufficient to meet its own power needs. Once regulatory clearances from the Maharashtra Energy Development Agency arrive,the plant can generate the balance quantum of electricity,which can be evacuated to the grid.

There have also been advances in incineration technology,whereby a waste-to-energy plant in Kanpur (reported in an earlier column) has been set up to produce 15 MW of electricity using RDF produced in-house while meeting the pollution control standards of CPCB. This plant was in operation for a number of months,and the electricity generated was being evacuated to the grid. More recently,problems have arisen because of the inability to maintain the quality of RDF being used in the boiler. Then there is the waste-to-energy plant in Timarpur Okhla,which uses the mass-burning method of incineration using unsegregated waste as the fuel,and has caused a lot of controversy for the need for mitigation of emissions to the atmosphere.

It is clear that technology options for waste-to-energy are increasing and there will be teething problems. Appropriate incentives and regulatory frameworks can provide scope for experimentation and application of technology to find environment-friendly ways of converting waste to energy. The FM’s proposed support for waste-to-energy helps generate a competitive and yet accountable environment for addressing this challenge. To quote what he said,“I propose to support municipalities that will implement waste-to-energy projects in PPP mode which would be neutral to different technologies… through different instruments such as viability gap funding,repayable grant and low-cost capital.”

By encouraging municipal waste-to-energy projects,the government can kill two birds with one stone. We can clean our cities by scientifically disposing of solid waste and generating electricity and at the same time,help reduce the large electricity deficit in the country. It has the added advantage of saving land. P. Chidambaram has provided an opening,but a lot more has to happen before we can convert the FM’s support into outcomes on the ground. At the same time,a lot more is expected from the FM to extend his support and encouragement to other ways of scientific disposal of municipal waste.

The writer is chairperson of ICRIER and former chairperson of the high-powered expert committee on urban infrastructure services

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