Turning rubbish into energy is big business, with the global industry expected to grow to at least US$29.2bn by 2022. TAQA plans to move into the market with one of the biggest waste-to-energy plants in the world in Abu Dhabi
The garbage trucks wind their way through the empty streets of Abu Dhabi in the small hours of the morning. Only the occasional roar of engines from the white and green Ivecos punctuates the eerie sound of silence.
As the trucks rumble towards their final destination at landfill sites dotted in the desert, a city sleeps, cocooned in the cooling breeze of air-conditioning.
But in the not-too-distant future, the power that generates those air-conditioning units could partially come from TAQA’s planned waste-to-energy plant in Abu Dhabi, turning the contents of garbage trucks into pure electricity.
"Our proposed plant would be up and running by 2017, generating enough power for 20,000 households in Abu Dhabi as well as cutting greenhouse gases," says Dr Saif Al Sayari, Executive Officer and Head of TAQA’s Energy Solutions, about the US$850m project.
"In fact, it is expected to reduce CO2 emissions by more than one million tonnes per year. That is taking into account the emissions that would be released if the waste was buried in a landfill site, transportation to the dumps and the size of the plant if it was powered by fossil fuels," he adds.
"This facility will operate 24/7 and 365 days a year, so you could argue that it is more efficient than solar or wind power." Ed Atkinson, Head of Waste-To-Energy, TAQA
Leading by size
Once the 100 megawatt (MW) plant is built on the outskirts of the UAE capital near the Mussafah Sea Port, it will be one of the biggest waste-to-energy facilities in the world. Stretching across an area of 100,000 square metres, the alternative power project will help Abu Dhabi shrink its carbon footprint.
"Overall, the project size is around 200 metres by 500 metres," says Ed Atkinson, Head of Waste-To-Energy at TAQA and part of Dr Al Sayari’s team. “That, of course, includes the roads to access the plant and the bunkers to store the waste before it’s burnt. But when this facility comes online it will operate 24/7 and 365 days a year, so you could argue that it is more efficient than solar or wind power."
TAQA has linked up with the Center of Waste Management – Abu Dhabi in the groundbreaking project and hopes to announce construction contracts towards the end of the year. The plant will also have stringent anti-pollution controls and employ between 65 and 100 employees.
"The emissions will fall well within globally recognised guidelines such as the Waste Incineration Directive, which applies to all European plants,” says Dr Al Sayari.
Looking at the bigger picture, he hopes the move into waste-to-energy will underline the company’s, and the country’s, commitment to alternative power sources.
"This offers us one of the most efficient ways to treat municipal solid waste," says Dr Al Sayari. "The problems with landfill sites are that they emit methane, a greenhouse gas that is 18 times more harmful than CO2, and is already the second-biggest contributor to climate change. Plants such as the one we are planning will help us deal with that challenge."
Hopefully, it will also solve a major problem in the waste-to-energy sector. During the past decade, the industry has been pushed into the shadows with the emergence of solar and wind power as alternative energy solutions. But that is starting to change as major countries in the Middle East, Asia and South America look for new options to fuel rapid economic expansion.
According to a report released by clean technology consultants Pike Research, the global market for the waste-to-energy sector is expected to grow from around US$7bn in 2012 to at least US$29.2bn by 2022.
"With many countries facing dramatic population growth, rapid urbanisation, rising levels of affluence and resource scarcity, waste-to-energy is re-establishing itself as an attractive technology option to promote low carbon growth in the crowded renewable energy landscape,” says Mackinnon Lawrence, senior research analyst at Pike.
"China is already in the midst of scaling up capacity, and growth there is expected to shift the centre of the WTE [waste-to-energy] universe away from Europe to Asia Pacific."
Mr Lawrence’s views are reinforced by a report rolled out in April from Bank of America Merrill Lynch and entitled No time to waste – global waste primer. Bank of America has calculated that the industry, including municipal and industrial waste management, recycling, waste-to-energy and sustainable packaging, is worth US$1trn a year.
The report also predicts that the market could double in size to around US$2trn in the next seven years. "We believe that the global dynamics of waste management mean that the sector offers numerous growth opportunities for those with exposure to the value chain," Bank of America points out in the report.
"By 2020, we estimate that the waste industry could be worth up to US$2trn, with Europe facing the toughest strategic challenges, and Asia and South America seeing the fastest growth."
Traditionally, the United States and Europe, where there are more than 400 waste-to-energy plants, have dominated the market. But in the next decade new players will emerge. Already China and India are moving into the sector, while Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, is looking at alternative energy solutions.
"There will be huge growth potential in countries such as India and China," says Mr Atkinson. “The Chinese government has earmarked a US$50bn budget for waste-to-energy projects. China is looking to ramp it up and there is a massive opportunity there for energy companies. If you look at where we are in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region, there is only one plant and that is in Doha, the capital of Qatar," he adds.
"If you consider the growth potential just in Abu Dhabi and Dubai alone, we can use our waste-to-energy expertise to help benefit the rest of the Emirates. We could also export it to countries such as Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait. In Saudi Arabia, the government there has announced US$130bn for renewables, so there is huge potential within the region."
As technology in the industry continues to evolve, the garbage trucks crawling their way in crocodile-like lines to landfill sites could one day be a thing of the past. Instead, they would drop off their dirty cargo at state-of-the-art plants to be turned into enough clean energy to power the cities of the future.
"Waste-to-energy is actually one of the cleanest sources of power in the world," says Dr Al Sayari. "Advances in technology will certainly fuel growth in the industry, and this will have an impact on the region and emerging economies in Asia."