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Trash to Treasure: Waste-to-Energy Plant in the UAE

10 May | By POWER Bear


According to the UNEP’s Global Waste Management Outlook 2024, by 2050, Municipal solid waste generation across the world is expected to grow from 2.3 billion tonnes in 2023 to 3.8 billion tonnes. To offset the economic as well as climate impacts of these growing numbers, UNEP is imploring countries across the world to take strong measures toward achieving a circular economy.

A circular economy model is where waste generation and economic growth are decoupled by adopting waste avoidance, sustainable business practices, and full waste management—it means that economic growth can continue without generation of more waste.

It can be argued that the shortest path towards a circular economy is adopting Waste-to-Energy processes. Realizing this potential, the UAE government has established major Waste-to-Energy plants in Sharjah and Dubai, in line with UAE’s Green Agenda 2030.

But What is Waste-to-Energy?

In a nutshell, Waste-to-Energy (WtE) refers to any process that transforms waste materials into usable energy, making it a form of energy recovery. These solutions can convert gaseous, liquid, and semi-solid waste into heat, fuel for transportation, or electricity.

WtE processes like Pyrolysis and Gasification have been around for centuries, yet the development of these technologies for processing residual or non-recyclable waste has only become a focus of attention in recent times, stimulated by the search for more efficient energy recovery methods.

The Most Common Waste-to-Energy Methods

Incineration: This is the most common method where waste is burned at high temperatures to produce heat, which is then used to generate electricity or heat buildings. The remaining ash is usually landfilled.

Gasification: Waste is heated in a low-oxygen environment to produce a gas mixture called syngas, which can be burned for energy or further processed into biofuels or chemicals.

Pyrolysis: This is similar to gasification but occurs in the absence of oxygen, leading to the production of bio-oil, syngas, and char, which can be used for energy or refined into other products.

Anaerobic Digestion: Organic waste is broken down by microorganisms in the absence of oxygen, producing biogas (a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide) that can be used for heating, electricity generation, or as a vehicle fuel.

Plasma Arc Gasification: Waste is exposed to a high-temperature plasma arc, breaking down organic materials into syngas and converting inorganic materials into a glass-like substance.

Benefits of Waste-to-Energy Plants

Reduced Landfill Waste:

A major benefit of Waste-to-Energy is that it helps minimize the volume of waste sent to landfills thereby reducing soil and water pollution and greenhouse gas production.

Clean and Limitless Energy Generation:

Waste-to-energy plants produce electricity and heat from waste, contributing to renewable energy sources and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Cost Savings:

Waste-to-energy plants can lower landfill operating costs and generate revenue through excess electricity sales, offering potential financial benefits.

UAE and Waste-to-Energy

In the rapid progress towards achieving a circular economy and zero waste efforts, the UAE has stepped up efforts to shift its energy focus to renewable sources. The adoption of WtE is one such effort and it provides the country an opportunity to valorize the ever-increasing waste produced, diversify its energy mix, attract green investments, and mitigate climate change.

The WtE plants in Sharjah and Dubai are making significant progress in furthering the country’s long-term sustainability goals.

Sharjah Waste-to-Energy Plant

·        The first WtE facility in the UAE, the Sharjah plant is designed to process up to 37.5 tonnes of unrecyclable solid waste per hour, generating 30MW of electricity.

·        This project is expected to supply electricity to 28,000 households and divert 300,000 tonnes of residual waste from landfills annually, over a 30-year operational life.

·        The plant is estimated to offset approximately 450,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions and substitute the use of 45 million m³ of natural gas annually.

·        In its first year of operation, it generated enough power to supply 2,000 homes, using household rubbish and industrial waste and offset 150,000 tonnes of carbon emissions. About 250 tonnes of metal were recovered during the same period.

·        It has processed more than 100,000 tonnes of waste—equivalent to that produced by 180,000 people—which was diverted from landfill and turned into clean energy.

Dubai Waste-to-Energy Plant

·        One of the world's largest waste-to-energy facilities, the Dubai plant can process up to 45% of the city's municipal waste, converting 1.9 million tonnes annually into approximately 200 MW of electricity.

·        This output is sufficient to power over 120,000 households and aligns with Dubai Municipality's goals to minimize landfill waste and develop alternative energy sources.

·        The facility contributes to UAE's ambitions to achieve 75% clean energy and reduce the country's carbon footprint by 70% by 2050.

Challenges and Solutions in UAE's Waste-to-Energy Journey

While waste-to-energy technologies offer significant advantages, including energy generation and waste reduction, they also pose challenges that need to be addressed:

1. Environmental Concerns: WtE processes can generate pollution and particulates, which may have adverse effects on air quality and public health if not properly controlled.

2. Resource Destruction: There is a risk that valuable materials could be destroyed in the process of converting waste to energy, reducing the potential for recycling and reuse.

3. Disincentive to Sustainable Practices: Relying too heavily on WtE solutions may discourage the development of more sustainable & innovative waste management practices and renewable energy sources.

Therefore, WtE initiatives must not be treated like standalone solutions. They must be integrated into a broader framework of green, circular economy practices, much like what the UAE is carrying out.

During the implementation of the WtE projects in the country, the UAE faced other challenges including the lack of awareness and understanding of the technology, the high capital costs, and the need for proper regulations and policies. However, the country is actively working to address them and promote the adoption of waste-to-energy technologies as part of its sustainable development strategy.

By taking a holistic approach that considers environmental, economic, and social factors, the UAE is demonstrating its commitment to sustainability and the circular economy. With proper planning and implementation, WtE projects can help the UAE achieve its environmental goals while contributing to economic growth and social well-being.

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