Rising landfill costs and renewable energy projects drive the uptake of waste-to-energy in Australia

By Sarah Wang, Frost & Sullivan senior consultant, Australia and New Zealand Industrial Practice

The Australian waste-to-energy market, though nascent, is undoubtedly poised for significant growth.

With the first specific energy-from-waste policy to be finalised by the New South Wales Energy Protection Agency, municipal solid waste-to-energy is expected to pick up pace with a few projects in New South Wales and Western Australia already in the works; pending approval or funding.

It is not all early stage though. Biomass and biogas power generation – due to the simplicity of the feedstock, energy conversion efficiency and environment impact – have been segments that have seen consistent activity for some time now. Biogas power generation still needs a kick-start from the government in the form of Renewable Energy Certificates (REC) or feed-in tariff or other forms of support for it to really experience strong growth that is comparable to what has happened in Germany, where there are almost 2000 biogas power generation plants.

The municipal solid waste (MSW) sector is expected to see strong growth between 2015 and 2020, with installed capacity reaching around 80MW and MSW treatment capacity about 12 million tonnes per annum by 2020. The plant value for the biomass and biogas sector is expected to witness compound annual growth of 3.2 per cent between 2013 and 2020.

These forecasts are detailed in Frost & Sullivan’s latest research, Strategic Analysis of the Australian Waste-to-Energy Sector, which is based on interviews with industry stakeholders and an extensive literature review.

Discussing technology uptake, Frost & Sullivan Australia and New Zealand Industrial Practice senior consultant Sarah Wang said the main technologies for municipal solid waste-to-energy are mature.

“However, the Australian industry has rightfully, a very low tolerance of technical risks associated with such projects. Only tested-and-proven technologies can be accepted,” she said.

At the moment, the technologies that have received environmental approval for the two pilot projects in Western Australia are mass combustion (owned by Martin Technologies GmbH) and gasification (owned by New Energy Corporation who is the global licensee (ex-Americas) of the Entech low temperature gasification technology. Both technologies have been deployed successfully in projects operating overseas, especially mass combustion that has been used at more than 1000 sites.

The failure of the Whytes Gully project at Wollongong, NSW, has weakened industry confidence in MSW-to-energy projects. Since the closure of the project in 2004, there had been no similar project proposed in the state for six years. However, with effective risk minimisation and public engagement, it is expected past resistance can be overcome in time.

For the biomass and biogas power generation sector, the regulatory framework and technologies are relatively mature. Currently, biomass power generation is largely comprised of bagasse, black liquor (at paper and pulp plants) and wood waste power generation. The channel into the Australian biomass and biogas sector includes direct sales to project owners and through engineering procurement and construction contractors. The suppliers’ capability and operational stability are among the most critical selection criteria identified in the market by project owners.

Ms Wang says, in the context of the global market, “the waste-to-energy sector in Australia has a lot of catching up to do”.

“Despite Australia not being constrained in terms of landfill space, which is a significant challenge in Europe, the rising cost of landfill in the main population centres offers encouraging economics for MSW-to-energy,” she said.

Looking at the wider region, it is expected by 2024, the Asia Pacific region will own the highest number of MSW waste-to-energy plants in the world – with about 46.7 per cent share of the global market.

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