It has been over three decades since the first waste-to-energy (WtE) plant came up in the country. Yet, the segment, which was once touted to be a breakthrough in the waste management industry, begs for attention from all stakeholders. A handful of projects that are currently operational bring to the fore a wide array of issues that have held back such projects from becoming more popular. There is thus a long way to go. India can learn from industry leaders such as Sweden that import waste to feed their WtEfacilties. From the source of waste generation to reaching the energy producing unit, the entire value chain has to be better understood in order to develop a new approach for the segment.
At present, the installed capacity of WtE plants based on municipal solid waste (MSW) is 85-90 MW, spread across 15 facilities. Most of these plants are not operational or are finding it difficult to continue operations. Some of the operational plants are located in cities such as Delhi, Jabalpur (Madhya Pradesh), and Sholapur (Maharashtra).
Typically, a WtE plant burns combustible waste of high calorific value to produce power, in addition to two other by-products – ash and smoke/gas emissions. As per reports, many of the operational plants such as those in Delhi are doing more harm than good. Owing to the incineration of poorly segregated MSW, these plants are at odds with environmental sustainability as air quality is taking a hit and soil and water contamination are reaching hazardous levels in nearby areas . Moreover, these facilities require auxiliary fuel to keep them running.
WtE from urban waste comes under the purview of the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016. Recently, the segment witnessed some policy action. In March 2020, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy issued revised guidelines for its WtEprogramme. The new guidelines will supersede the existing guidelines of the WtEprogramme, which were issued on July 30, 2018. The revised guidelines specify the inclusion of MSW projects, based on a clarification by the Department of Expenditure, following which a sum of Rs 4 billion has been set aside for MSW-based projects with a target of setting up 200 MW capacity. The objective of the programme is to promote setting up of such projects for waste-based energy production for feeding power into the grid and for meeting captive power, thermal and vehicular fuel requirements.
Areas of concern
The WtE segment is mired in a number of issues. Of these, poorly segregated or unsegregated waste that is fed into the plants is the biggest issue. This not only impacts the plant’s optimal utilisation, but also has a high carbon footprint. Besides, a mature and scalable indigenous technology is absent. These factors result in high upfront investments as well as steep operations and maintenance costs.
At the project level, the economics are unfavourable in the current scenario, despite the subsidies extended to such facilities. This is due to two reasons. One, these plants require auxiliary power (assuming mixed waste is fed into them), and two, the electricity produced is priced at about Rs 7 per kWh, as compared to Rs 3-Rs 4 per kWh of electricity available from other sources (coal and solar plants). The highly priced electricity from WtE plants, thus, seldom finds willing buyers. The governance structure also does not help, as all levels of government (central, state and local) work in silos, with little coordination, which has the potential to bring in efficiency gains. As this has continued for a number of years, financiers have kept their distance from such projects.
Need of the hour
In a post-COVID scenario, sectors that have traditionally been dependent on government subsidies will require new strategies, as public expenditure on the social sector and for stabilising the economy will take precedence. Private investments will thus have a major role to play. However, as these investments are guided by supportive and clear policies, the government too will have to do its bit in this regard. This is an opportune time to revisit the drawing board and resolve the fundamental issues with policies that govern the WtE sector. Once this crucial step is taken, the private sector is likely to ensure development of cost-effective and efficient plants. w