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As global population and waste levels rise, and fossil fuels resources are depleted, the world is left facing the problems of energy shortages, global warming and rising waste levels, which are detrimental both to human health and, through greenhouse gas emissions, to the environment.
These challenges are faced by the global community; millions of the world’s poorest inhabitants are living alongside mountains of waste and struggle to support themselves with minimal energy supplies. There is a similar issue in the developed world – carbon emissions, rising landfill levels and limited fossil fuel reserves place a combined strain on the environment, infrastructure and budgets.
Finding effective, sustainable solutions to combat the effects of anthropogenic global warming will be the greatest challenge that the global community faces in the 21st century. A major part of this endeavour will be in developing means to secure dependable sources of renewable energy and in greatly reducing the amount of materials obtained from virgin reserves for manufacturing and power generation.
Indeed, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in its 5th Assessment Report in September 2013, that by 2011 we used 531 billion tonnes of our 1 trillion tonne carbon budget to keep the world on course for a maximum temperature increase target of 2°C. If we release more than 1 trillion tonnes by the end of the 21st century we will have a 66% chance of exceeding the 2 degree threshold.
By ‘closing the loop’ of the production process through ploughing much of our resources back into industrial and commercial processes, we can keep virgin resources and their carbon in the ground. Demand for new resources can be further reduced by increasing the amount of power generated from renewable sources.
This chapter will set out the challenges we face and examine how technological innovation will enable us to both protect the environment and ensure our resource security.
The Energy Challenge
The European Union has set ambitious targets to increase the proportion of energy from renewable sources from around 8.5% to 20% by 2020; however, we are still a long way off from realising these ambitions. There exists a fundamental challenge in providing heat and power economically, whilst also achieving renewable energy targets.
The UK has its own set of challenges in this regard; there is a risk of a significant energy gap because much of the existing coal and nuclear power are due to come offline by 2020. There is a fierce debate as to what role there will be for nuclear, gas, renewables and coal in the UK’s future energy mix against the backdrop of rising prices and an urgent need to invest in replacing aging infrastructure in order to keep the lights on.
The future of global energy markets is uncertain at this point, particularly in relation to gas and nuclear, so the UK Government would be wise to invest in and encourage a diverse energy mix. With the population set to rise, and with it demand for energy, the UK needs to plan for a future with reliable, secure, low-carbon and low cost energy and renewable energy has the potential to play a big part in realising all of these objectives.
The Waste Challenge
The volumes of waste we produce globally are on an upward trajectory, with the rising affluence of growing urban populations leading to a rise in consumption. The UK sends around 40 million tonnes of waste to landfill every year and this figure does not take into account the two billion tonnes of waste already sitting in landfill, whilst in Singapore waste production is expected to double every decade.
The problem of waste generation is not confined to the developed world. Developing countries are producing increasing volumes of waste as their populations urbanise and acquire wealth. Presently, more than half of the world’s population is urban and the UN have predicted that this figure will increase to 70% by 2030. This situation is not sustainable, for space, cost and environmental reasons and we need to seek alternatives to sending waste to landfill.
At the European level, measures are already in place for reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill. Taxes have made throwing waste into landfill increasingly expensive since they were first introduced in the UK in 1997, a time when 65 million tonnes of waste were sent to landfill.. Landfill tax in the UK will hit £80 per tonne in 2014, so there is a need to find a more economically sustainable solution to landfill.
As the waste management challenge is tackled over the coming years, it is anticipated that governments and businesses will increasingly look for efficient technologies that can treat waste in an environmentally-benign way. New EU countries, which are behind their Western neighbours in terms of renewable energy infrastructure, are likely to start investing more heavily in green waste management solutions in order to comply with tough regulations. Moreover, tighter regulation of waste and recycling is likely, which will build on the UK Government’s Waste Review and the European Commission’s Waste Hierarchy. Ultimately, the solution will be the widespread adoption of a variety of technologies and techniques.
With the regulatory framework set out by these policies, it is becoming more economically viable to put our finite resources back into the system and ‘close the loop’, whether this is through recycling or reusing, rather than throwing them away. By harnessing the energy of residual (non-recyclable) waste, we can re-balance the global waste and energy industries allowing continued economic progress without further damaging the environment.
By looking ‘beyond waste’, we have begun to recognise that there is further opportunity, innovation and environmental benefit in recovering energy from what might previously have been seen as a residual waste destined for landfill. Rather than treating waste as a problem to be disposed of and relying on rapidly-depleting sources of fossil fuels to meet our mounting energy needs, this abundant resource could be sustainably used as an energy and fuel source.
Currently, the most common waste to energy approach is mass burn incineration (MBI), whereby organic substances contained in waste materials are combusted to provide heat for raising steam to generate electric power. A considerable amount of energy and resources are lost during this process, whilst concerns remain over the emissions and potentially harmful residues from the process
A complete paradigm shift is beginning to happen with the advent of advanced technologies that are capable of delivering greater value from our waste. They are able to take residual and commercial waste and turn it into a clean, sustainable energy source in a highly efficient manner with no waste outputs and very low emissions.
Advanced waste to energy and fuels technologies, such as Advanced Plasma Power’s Gasplasma® process, facilitates resource optimisation by ensuring that the maximum practical benefit is extracted from waste as a source of materials and energy enabling complete landfill diversion.
Gasplasma® uses an innovative combination of two well-established technologies (gasification and plasma conversion ) in a unique configuration to convert residual, municipal and commercial waste into a clean, hydrogen-rich synthesis gas (syngas) and a solid, vitrified product (Plasmarok®). This very clean synthesis gas is suitable for further processing, making it the ideal resource for downstream applications in power, fuel and chemical production. It can be deployed at a local, community-based level in conventional warehouse buildings.
These technologies can be applied to new waste streams or to waste that already exists in landfills.
Landfill mining is an innovative concept in waste management. Landfill sites can now be mined for their valuable recyclates because rubbish dumps and historic waste streams contain concentrations of valuable materials, such as metals that will be processed and recycled. That which cannot be recycled can be converted into renewable power and heat using advanced conversion technologies. These new technologies ensure that the maximum value is extracted from this residual material enabling the return of landfill sites to their natural state for development or community use.
The mining of existing landfills is an exceptional example of closing the material’s loop and the first project of this type is being undertaken in Belgium. Once the concept has been proven, it can be applied to the billions of tonnes of waste that currently reside in landfill.
This is a sample taken from a chapter in the book, Renewable Energy 3.0. Available from Amazon