Hydrogen is in competition with alternative fuels, and although it is possibly the cleanest fuel of all, it has a number of drawbacks that we will now look at.
1. Alternative Technologies Such As Waste-to-Hydrogen Could Reshape The Global Waste Industry
From what I can see, the waste industry is under enormous pressure. In the Western World new technologies are coming onto the market. New methods are being developed, to produce hydrogen from plastics. It doesn’t stop there. The long-term goal is to produce diesel from certain types of plastics. Technology providers (waste-to-hydrogen and plastic-to-fuel plants) have not yet been able to commercialize their solutions, but to me the whole industry seems like a pressure cooker. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that the entire waste industry will change over the coming years in order to accommdate new technologies entering the market, possibly effecting the structure and set-up of the waste industry.
Please also refer to an article that I have written on the future of hydrogen in the energy sector as a whole.
2. Waste-to-Hydrogen Plants Could Absorb Some Plastic Waste
Waste-to-energy plants remain one of the best options for waste disposal, especially for household waste. A lot of new plants are being build in East Asia where a lot of waste is being generated. Probably the most active country in this regard is China. The amount of household waste that is generated in China grows year-on-year. Middlehurst (2019) commented on this topic in an excellent article published by the Financial Times.
Waste disposal costs money, it is a product that you want to get rid of, which means it has a negative value. This is quite different from the coal industry, where you pay for the coal.
The waste-to-energy company produces electricity and heat from the waste material. The very fact that waste can be turned into hydrogen and diesel could potentially have repercussions in the waste sector as waste becomes commodity. Due to global growth in the amount of waste, the impact of new technologies entering the waste sector may be muted.
Due to the fact that a lot of countries ban the import of plastic waste, plastic to hydrogen solutions can reduce the amount of plastic waste.
3. Plastic-to-Fuel Plants Can Help Our Waste Predicament
We can see the changes in the waste industry. If plastic-to-fuel is being commercialized, it reduces the amount of plastic waste made available for other uses. While there are few solutions currently available that make economic sense, this may change in time. Why is that? Because peak oil will dramatically change the way business works. Currently, oil prices are not high enough to turn plastic waste into fuel.
Then again, one could make the opposite case. Low oil prices lead to more economic growth, as a result of this more waste is produced. That means more plastic waste will go to the plastic-to-fuel plants. For me personally it seems far more reasonable that high oil prices will lead to the commercialization of plastic-to-fuel plants, because of incentives. We also have to keep in mind that plastic-to-fuel plants would have to compete with waste-to-hydrogen plants.
4. Cement Plants Need a Different Kind of Fuel
The main difference between cement plants and waste-to-energy installations is that cement plants produce a product. That product is cement. To produce cement for the construction industry (actual product), cement plants require enormous amounts of energy. The material also needs to have a high calorific value. The high calorific value is high because of the high plastic content. To compare, the material that is disposed of in waste incinerators often has a much lower calorific value.
We then distinguish between SRF and RDF. I am referring to an article written by Cuperus (2015) from resource.co. RDF has less chlorine in it, and has a lower calorific value most of the time. SRF has more chlorine in it and a higher CV, and it is higher grade material and can be used by cement plants.
Let’s examine the process. RDF is produced from the remaining fraction of household waste that cannot be recycled or reprocessed and cannot be used for material recovery. The material, the SRF or RDF, has to be shredded and is mixed with other fractions to achieve the desired calorific value. The material is either baled and wrapped, or delivered loose, to be disposed of in waste-to-energy plants. Cement plants have very strict acceptance criteria, but their criteria are not as strict as those of waste-to-energy plants (most of the waste-to-energy plants in the world are grate firing systems).
So why do cement plants need waste anyways? The first reason is that cement plants have to conform to climate targets, and the second reason is that coal has become too expensive. If goes without saying that cement plants would prefer to use coal, but the prices will only go up further. It must also be considered that the calorific value of coal does not fluctuate as widely as that of waste fuel. In fact, the calorific value of RDF and SRF fluctuates quite a lot. That means countermeasures must be taken all the time, to correct for these fluctuations. To my knowledge, this explains why cement plants cannot fully replace coal supplies with alternative waste fuels, The rest of the material is coal.
5. Some Waste Incinerators Optimize Their Energy Efficiency Ratio, by Utilizing CHP and District Heating Networks
In Denmark, combined heat and power (CHP) is a good addition for waste-to-energy installations, this has been mentioned by Aaron Thomas (2012) from the WWF. The heat is being supplied to households or for other industrial uses. I would add that not every country can benefit from CHP technology. The northern latitude of Scandinavian countries makes this solution much more viable for them.
6. The Waste Sector Will Be More International, France Is A Good Example
Emmanuel Macron’s government has set its eyes on French waste management companies. The government wants to create the world’s leading waste management company, to do that it wants to merge SUEZ and Veolia into one global player. Let us keep in mind that both companies operate an entire fleet of waste-to-energy plants in France, the UK and elsewhere. But there are other plans as well, one is to privatize French waste companies and sell its shares in these two waste companies. From what I can see, France will experience a wave of privatization in every field of the economy. To me it doesn’t sound improbable that the French government will proceed with its plans, one way or another. Looking at it from this angle, France is a very good example how globalism shapes the waste-to-energy industry.
7. Deregulation Has Allowed Foreign Firms Enter The UK Waste Market
For the sake of argument, let us look at another country that is a prime example or how deregulation shapes local waste-to-energy markets. The United Kingdom has deregulated since the 1980’s, the waste industry was no exception. During that time, foreign investors like Covanta Energy have entered the UK market. Covanta stemmed huge investments in the UK, but the company is not alone. SUEZ and Veolia from France have entered the UK market as well and have gotten deeply involved in the UK’s waste industry, everything from collection to sorting of waste right down to waste incineration.
Waste-to-hydrogen as well as plastic-to-waste technologies (pyrolysis technologies in many cases) offer the chance to rebuild the engineering acumen in the UK, and British firms will become leaders in the market. They will be ready to expand abroad.
I find it particularily disheartening that very few EPC contractors (Engineering, Procurement and Construction) come from the UK. It seems their numbers have decreased. There are only two ways this could have happened: Either some EPC contractors were bought by their competitors or they went bankrupt. We can see a loss of know-how and talent in the UK waste sector, in part due to deregulation.
8. Summary Waste-to-Hydrogen and Alternative Technologies
In a globalized waste market, traditionally-run waste companies that rely on their government for support will face increased pressure on their profit margin. Innovation is – generally-speaking – not their number one strength, they don’t always have access to the best talent and young, dynamic people are often attracted to start-up’s. In many cases, they are tied up managing their own affairs and processes. In many cases, their focus should be more on generating alternative revenue streams. One can easily envisage a new more versatile market with fewer, newer, more agile players that compete successfully and on different levels. We will see how larger waste businesses will be able to hold up against so much competition.
To summarize: Organic waste can be used to produce heat and electricity, and can be used to produce biogas. Biogas can be fed into the gas network. To make biogas plants even more successful, it would be a good idea to reduce the sulfur content. Some of the plastic waste can be turned into diesel or hydrogen. This significantly reduces residual waste from the conversion process. Nevertheless, there will still be residual waste that has to be disposed of. Paper and cardboard can be processed and turned into other products. Dirt is always a problem for plastic waste and paper, but hopefully a solution will be found. Besides all of this, the amount of waste is still growing globally. This may overturn everything that I have said above – there may well be different technologies, and they will all be making a difference.
Although I did not go into too much detail regarding sewage sludge treatment and the prospect of using sewage sludge to generate electricity and heat, and phosphorus from it, I strongly believe this to be a new market opening that can be exploited further.
Cuperus, G. (2015) ‘The Difference Between RDF and SRF’, resource.co, 26 May, Available at: https://resource.co/article/difference-between-rdf-and-srf-10156 (Accessed: 23 07 2019).
Middlehurst, C. (2019) ‘Waste-to-energy: panacea for Asia’s pollution problem of a load of rubbish?’, Financial Times, 8 July, Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/75312290-7d61-11e9-8b5c-33d0560f039c (Accessed: 23 07 2019).
Thomas, A. (2012) ‘Denmark waste to energy’, WWF, 01 March, Available at: http://wwf.panda.org/?204596/Denmark-waste-to-energy (Accessed: 24 07 2019).
Many thanks for the shared interest in the energy world!