Urban Waste In Africa Offers Large Source Of Electricity

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For renewable energy researchers in Europe, now is the time to look closely at what is happening with waste in Africa.

The estimated electricity production from the total waste generated in Africa could reach 122.2 TWh in 2025, reports the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC). This kind of “found energy” is particularly important in a continent where almost 900 million people don’t even have access to grid-distributed electricity.

africa landfill shutterstock_64013851The JRC researchers say this estimated waste-to-energy total equals more than 20% of the electricity consumed in 2010 at a continental level, or 661.5 TWh. According to the JRC co-authored study, that amount is equivalent to the energy needed for 40 million African households in 2025. There is a large downside to this supply-side calculation, though.

The continent’s urban waste management infrastructure, including landfills and waste-to-energy plants and collection systems, is in need of critical growth, states UrbanAfrica:

“Waste management is a critical issue for most African cities as a result of the huge generation of mountains of waste stemming from increases in urban populations over the last few decades, coupled with access to consumer goods by a fast-growing middle class. And waste generation is expected to increase rapidly in the future. City authorities are therefore faced with the challenge of managing urban waste with limited resources at their disposal.”

This video from Malaysia depicts a landfill waste-to-energy program that is called Integrated Resource Recovery.

This latest JRC report shows the potential electricity of waste actually collected is estimated to be 83.8 TWh in 2025, meaning a good amount of potential energy generating waste will still remain little more than waste. Still, this estimate, if true, represents the electrical energy needed for some 27 million families in 2025. This number is based on the average electricity consumption for 2010 in Africa.

There is no doubt the demand for electricity will grow dramatically as the African middle class grows, and along with that, the many varied businesses which will serve this population sector.

“Population growth, urbanisation and economic development are expected to produce increasing quantities of waste that are overburdening existing waste-management systems,” reports ScienceDirect in its Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. “Many cities in Africa face significant difficulties related to waste management, collection and disposal of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). Increasing city size poses great problems linked to increasing population and city area as well as lack of infrastructure development.”

Even as researchers look to the future, there remain many Africans who have no access to electricity. Besides providing an interesting share of gross energy consumption and electricity as a renewable resource, energy recovered from such waste-to-energy operations might also help “minimise the impact of municipal solid waste on the environment,” writes the JRC.

The study is titled Evaluation of energy potential of Municipal Solid Waste from African urban areas, and estimates the total potential of energy from waste incineration and from landfill gas (LFG) by 2025 for each African country.

Number of worldwide waste-to-energy facilities in 2010

In 2010, there were more than 600 waste-to-energy facilities in the world, most of them in Europe (472), Japan (100), and the US (86). In Africa, a very limited share of waste is recovered and reused, and only major or capital cities have waste management systems.

In a number of countries, the use of waste to generate electricity could have a significant impact. Waste can have a very high contribution to providing electricity to citizens and alleviate energy poverty especially in countries with low access to electricity and reduced electricity consumption per capita, such as the Central African Republic, Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Somalia.

Different waste-to-energy options exist

According to DoItYourself, Converting waste into energy involves mostly organic waste, such as paper products, plant matter and organic materials that are gathered and burned. “The burning of the waste produces heat which–because the burning process is done in a boiler–turns water into steam. The steam then is used to power turbines, which in turn generate electricity. The electricity that is produced as a result is then transferred to power plants and then distribute it across the power grid. Essentially, the process of turning waste into energy is as simple as that.” Controlling greenhouse gas emissions can sometimes be a concern with this burning procedure.

Other waste-to-energy technologies, similar to the Malaysian video, collect and burn landfill gas, or methane. This naturally occurring gas is created through bacterial decomposition referred to as anaerobic digestion.  This article depicts the large DADS landfill gas collection operation near Denver, Colorado in the United States.

Bottom line, producing clean electricity from waste materials is a first-rate example of sustainable technologies.

Image: Africa landfill via Shutterstock

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Glenn Meyers

is a writer, producer, and director. Meyers was editor and site director of Green Building Elements, a contributing writer for CleanTechnica, and is founder of Green Streets MediaTrain, a communications connection and eLearning hub. As an independent producer, he's been involved in the development, production and distribution of television and distance learning programs for both the education industry and corporate sector. He also is an avid gardener and loves sustainable innovation.

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