Polluting and unviable: Five reasons Bengaluru’s upcoming Waste-to-Energy plants can fail

WASTE-TO-ENERGY PLANTS

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The Okhla Waste-To-Energy plant in Delhi seen emitting smoke, which has been a major concern for residents around the area. Pic: Ranjit Devraj

Everyone in Bengaluru would have seen and been disgusted by mounds of garbage on the roads. Everyone heaves a sigh of relief when the BBMP carts off waste upon receiving complaints from frustrated residents. But where does the garbage go?

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Government has come up with a quick fix solution for Bengaluru’s garbage woes – five Waste to Energy (WtE) plants with a combined capacity to manage 2100 tonnes of waste per day.

Many people may think – wow, Waste to Energy! That’s a brilliant concept! Solves two crises in one go!

Absolutely wrong. Here are five reasons why:

  • WtE plants are not apt for waste generated in India

“But I’ve seen that WhatsApp video where they show those WtE plants in Sweden and Singapore and Japan – why can’t we adopt modern technology like these countries?

WtE plants need waste of high calorific value and low moisture content to generate electricity. Only non-biodegradable, non-recyclable waste should be sent to these plants, as per the Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules, 2016. This would include only non-recyclable plastics, polymers etc. Ideally, the waste content used in the plants should have calorific value of 2500kCal/kg, with a burn rate of 4500 kCal/kWh.

But in India, it’s mixed waste that’s sent to WtE plants. And this mixed waste (not considering inerts) has high vegetable and wet waste content – close to 60-70 percent. Whereas non-biodegradable non-recyclable waste comes to less than 10 percent of the mixed waste.

In that case, the calorific value would be just about 1100-1500 kCal/kg, as against the 2500kCal/kg required!

Moreover, as the waste is mostly unsegregated with high wet content, it’s unsuitable for burning. To burn, extra fuel is needed, which would make power generation itself inefficient.

  • WtE plants are not financially viable 

Because of the composition of waste in India, these plants will end up burning mixed waste of 1100-1500 kCal/kg rather than 2500kCal/kg. Our analysis shows that, in this scenario, the output electricity would be way less than one-third of what’s expected (due to changes in calorific value of waste, heat rate and the extra power needed to burn waste).

Hence the capital investment would not be recovered even in 50 years. This would render the plants financially unviable; and the use of mixed waste in the plants also violate basic tenets of the SWM Rules 2016.

A report in the Deccan Herald in September mentioned that BBMP is proposing five such plants “with a cumulative capacity to process 2100 tonnes of waste per day’’. To put this in perspective, the total waste generated by Bengaluru is estimated to be around 5000 tonnes per day.

So for argument’s sake, let’s say that the plants would burn only the high calorific non-biodegradable non-recyclable waste, which is just 10 percent of the total waste.

That would mean that for a city like Bengaluru that generates 5000 tonnes per day, the combustible portion is only around 500 tonnes per day, and that too when fully segregated. It beats us why the government is then pushing for 2100 tonnes capacity for WtE, through five plants.

Trucks carrying garbage to Mandur landfill (2012). Pic: Anand Yadwad

Suppose we fall for the narrative that these plants will process 2100 tonnes of waste overall, and that only the 10 percent segregated plastic portion will be incinerated. Suppose this 210 tonnes of segregated waste comprises of high-value plastic that has the highest possible calorific value of 8000 kCal/kg. Even then, all the five plants combined can generate only about 20 MW. Whereas BBMP’s proposed plants are supposed to generate more than 60 MW.

The electricity produced by the WtE plants is also expensive even after the subsidies given. The Karnataka Electricity Regulatory Commission (KERC) has fixed a rate of Rs 7.08 per unit for electricity from a WtE plant. (Distribution companies in India pay only Rs 3.5 per unit for thermal power and Rs 2.5-3 per unit for renewable energy on average.) Even at this higher price point the plants do not become viable and would sink into financial bankruptcy.

How does the Karnataka government plan to make the plants financially viable for WtE companies? Perhaps by implementing tipping fees? This is an incentive paid to garbage contractors for supplying higher quantities of waste to the plants.

With this, the plants may keep getting more waste, but the quality may be poor. Low quality and inert waste materials would then end up being landfilled in the premises.

In any case, if these plants have to be kept running for next 30 years as per the contracts BBMP is signing, the city will have to pay a heavy price in electricity fee or tipping fee (though tipping fee is not mentioned in the current agreement).

Mostly the city will follow several cities in the west that have been forced into bankruptcy by such gargantuan plants, or be forced to import waste! What is worse, is anybody’s guess.

  • WtE plants are highly polluting

The burning of all kinds of waste releases pollutants like dioxin, furans and other heavy metals into the atmosphere. This is an example of creating a larger problem. How is the toxic ash generated from these WtE plants dealt with?

Unfortunately, as we have seen in the case of Okhla plant in Delhi, this ash is callously dumped and rag pickers pick their way through it, hoping to find something of use. This grievously endangers their health.

In a densely-populated country like India, pollution control norms should be more stringent than in the relatively sparsely-populated Nordic countries. But our pollution control norms are significantly relaxed compared to those of the European Union.

In an email conversation with me, Swati Sambyal, Programme Manager at the research and advocacy organisation Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), said, “Experience across the country indicates that these plants are not able to meet environmental norms. The reason seems to be the highly variable, poor quality of waste that the plants are not able to burn properly.”

She further said that housekeeping is extremely challenging in these plants as they handle large quantities of mixed waste. This leads to odour and visual pollution. “Also, WtE plants have to reject about 30–40 per cent of the waste, which they dump into landfills because it is either inert or too poor in quality to be combustible,” she said.

  • WtE Plants have consistently failed in India

CSE’s 2018 report To burn or Not to burn points to the failure of WtE plants in the country. According to Swati, who was also a co-author of the report, “Since 1987, when the first WtE came up in Timarpur in Delhi, half of the 14 plants set up – in Kanpur, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Vijayawada, Karimnagar etc – failed and closed down. In Bengaluru, the plant in Mandur created massive ecological destruction and severe health hazards to citizens in and around, became a landfill and had to be shut down.”

The other seven WtE plants in the country are under scrutiny for environmental violations, said Swathi. “Citizen movements against WtE plants are rising. For instance, there have been continual protests against the Okhla WtE plant for polluting the environment. In 2016, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) slapped an environmental compensation fine of Rs 25 lakh on this plant.”

 

What is likely to happen with these plants is that they will raise money from financial institutions and declare bankruptcy citing unviability, losing several hundred of crores, and then vanish into thin air. The locality that these plants come up in end up as landfills of the dirtiest order, with less scope for redemption.

Sounds exaggerated? Not really. You just have to look at Mandur in the outskirts of Bengaluru. Mandur today is filled with flies, dogs and leachate ponds that pollute groundwater, causing severe health hazards to residents nearby.

  • WtE plants will kill segregation

The final specious argument made to the gullible is that since Bengaluru is a large city, we need multiple approaches to tackle waste. We have a lot of black spots in the city where mixed waste gets dumped. WtE plants are being set up entirely to process waste from these black spots, goes the argument.

Setting up WtEs to manage black spots is akin to legitimising deviant, errant behaviour. Most WtE agreements guarantee a minimum quantity of waste to be supplied by BBMP, and heavy penalties if it doesn’t. So does that mean BBMP will encourage mixed waste dumping at black spots so that it has a constant supply of mixed waste?

What BBMP should do is stricter monitoring and enforcement of penalties and fines that deter mushrooming of black spots. Also, since the portion of combustible non-biodegradable non-recyclable portion is below 10 percent, BBMP will be forced to discard segregation, and ensure availability of mixed waste to supply the contractual obligatory quantities. 

What BBMP should embrace as the way forward 

Setting up highly-centralised units for burned mixed waste

  • rewards non-segregation
  • is against the basic tenets of SWM Rules 2016 that require composting of wet waste and recycling of plastics
  • render waste pickers – the informal sector that thrives on collecting recyclables – redundant

BBMP should stop pushing WtEs as the panacea for garbage menace, and focus on decentralised processing of wet waste as directed by the High Court. Of the 5000 tonnes of waste generated in Bengaluru everyday, around 60 percent is wet waste that can be either composted or converted to energy through biomethanation (in simple terms, biogas plants). When processing happens in their own backyard, people will wake up to the need for segregation and will become more responsible.

The Pollution Control Board should also define buffer zones for solid waste management plants on a progressive basis – that is, higher the capacity of the plant, larger should be the buffer zone. Currently, irrespective of the capacity of the plant, the buffer zone need only be 500 m, which can even be reduced to 200 m.

Say, for a 500-tonne plant, such a small buffer zone is clearly insufficient; it would lead to pollution of the nearby residential areas. Hence such a plant should ideally have buffer zone of 2-3 kilometres, whereas a 15-tonne plant may need buffer zone of just about 30 m. 

Such differentiation in buffer zones would not just prevent pollution of residential areas, but also open ways for setting up smaller, decentralised plants in space-constrained Bengaluru.

The economics also do not point towards centralised WtE plants. The estimated budget for the WtE plants would be more than three to six times that of a biomethanation plant that generates the same amount of electricity.

If wet waste is managed in a decentralised fashion, with one small bio-methanation plant of about 15 tpd (tonnes per day) capacity in each of the 198 wards of Bengaluru, the total investment required would only be around Rs 600 crores. In contrast, Rs 1500 cr is needed to set up the five proposed WtE plants which, as mentioned above, would be unsustainable too!

Note: Nirupama Pillai also contributed to this article

In the second part of this series, we discuss the curious case of the upcoming WtE plant in Chikkanagamangala near Electronic City

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About Deepu Chandran 2 Articles
Deepu Chandran is a resident of Electronic City. He is an entrepreneur, and is closely involved with working on waste management in his locality.

1 Comment

  1. According to authors, Deepu Chandran and Nirupama Pillai one should do nothing. There is not enough landfills to dump segregated waste. India needs to evolve, first is to burn waste, next develop segregation. This is how it has been implemented in western European countries; I can say this as I have been living here for long time. Segregation is not implemented only 10% of the regions. It involves building expensive infrastructure and citizen education. It is a 15 to 20 year transition.

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