Waste not, want watts – turning waste into energy
by Anthony King
The race is on to reuse waste as energy in the most effective way possible. Combined heat and power is an old idea for saving fuel with a new imperative to slash emissions. Innovative furnaces based on biofuel systems will generate heat and power from waste materials with near-complete efficiency and very low emissions.
The old mantra of waste not, want not, goes for energy as well as food. The less energy we waste, the lower will be our carbon emissions.
It may come as a surprise to learn that around half of total energy is wasted in conventional ways of producing heat and electricity from fossil fuels. But there is another way to generate both electric power and heat in what is called “combined heat and power” (CHP), or cogeneration. Quite apart from using fossil fuels, it opens the door to bring more bioenergy from waste material into the energy mix. This kind of material is often overlooked as a resource but it has significant potential.
‘This is a way to produce heat and power at the same time,’ said Martin Stroleny at Greenovate Europe, a Brussels-based network that supports sustainable technologies and green innovation. ‘It can save up to 40% energy compared to conventional power-only systems.’ He is part of an EU funded project called SmartCHP, which is designing a new engine that can turn biomass into heat and electricity.
The work involves modifying a diesel engine so that it can handle bio-oil, instead of diesel. The project scientists and engineers have been working on the nuts and bolts of the machine for the last two years.
The idea is to first use a machine (a fast-pyrolysis plant) that can turn organic waste such as olive kernels, but also forestry and agricultural leftovers, into a bio-oil. The greenish bio-oil can then be routed down either of two paths. The oil can be fed into a modified diesel engine to generate electricity, or, if heat is required, into a flue gas boiler.
‘We can generate heat and electricity at the same time,’ explained Stroleny, ‘And the system is very dynamic.’ This means the production of heat can be dialled up on a chilly winter day, but then dialled down during warmer summer days. It is also a great solution to balance the energy grid and complement more variable renewable energies such as solar or wind.
The engine that the project is designing will be suitable to provide heat and power to hotels, hospitals, schools and even some industrial buildings. ‘We can help them decrease their energy and heating costs, as well as improve overall energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,’ said Stroleny.
In the past few months, the team scored a significant success when it put together its CHP unit in a lab and ran it on bio-oil for 500 hours. ‘This is actually a world’s first,’ said Stroleny. ‘The first time that somebody managed to run a CHP unit on biofuel for such a length of time.’
For now, the various parts of the machine such as the diesel engine, flue gas boiler and smart controller are being developed and tested in a lab. The project is still working on the best way to put them all together and make the CHP unit as efficient as possible. Full-scale testing is likely to occur in 2023.
It will also evaluate different biological feedstocks to go into the machine, such as olive kernels from Greece, miscanthus crop from Croatia or forestry waste from Sweden. SmartCHP is carrying out a market assessment in different countries, to support the commercialisation of these new machines.
CHP generates power and heat at the site of the school or hospital itself. This makes it especially suitable for heating and powering buildings in remote locations or even in places that are not connected to an electricity grid, such as islands.
BLAZE is another European project that is plugging away at developing more efficient and flexible technologies for returning leftover biomass as combined heat and power services. Engineers here are developing CHP systems capable of converting industrial, food or timber waste and other biomass into energy.
This process produces a gas for fuel, but this is not combusted in an engine or gas turbine. Instead, the gas is fed into a fuel-cell, a battery-like device that converts chemicals in the gas into electricity and heat. The system then feeds electricity into the electricity grid, to help balance the loads and possibly to make up shortfalls if the inputs from wind or solar power taper off.
‘The challenge is how to convert biomass waste in an efficient way, without emissions, and also at low cost,’ said Professor Enrico Bocci at the University Guglielmo Marconi, who leads the BLAZE project. Later this year, CHP machines will be put through their paces. The hope is for electrical efficiency of close to 50%, and an overall CHP efficiency of 90% – meaning that 50% of the energy available from a fuel gets converted into usable electricity and 40% into heating.
The system will take in all sorts of wastes, which might generate tar, particles, sulfur and chlorine compounds that could interfere with the unit. To avoid such problems, it will turn waste into gas at around 800°C and treat it, before feeding the gas into the fuel cell, converting fuel plus oxygen into electricity and heat at temperatures of around 700°C, with very low emissions. The gas can also flow into a burner to allow for more heat to be generated.
A pilot power plant will be assembled in Italy towards the end of this year and tested up to May 2023. ‘We will achieve double the electrical efficiency of biomass CHP plants with zero emissions from our pilot programme,’ said Bocci.
‘When the price of energy increases, people and companies will look for alternative solutions to fossil fuels,’ he added. There is also a dire need to reduce reliance on fossil fuels for geopolitical and climate reasons. But it is not possible to replace fossil fuels only with renewable electricity from solar and wind, said Bocci, and as long as there is life there will be biomass.
BLAZE is a first demonstration of this technology that can convert leftover biomass highly efficiently and with low emissions and costs.
We are not there yet, but researchers and engineers in Europe are moving towards the day of optimal combined heat and power. It will provide multiple benefits.
‘There will come a time when you can take your biomass waste and put it in a small, low-cost reactor and generate electricity, heat and chemicals, with no emissions,’ said Bocci.
The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
Congo oil auction: Perenco is interested, local communities want it out
The Anglo-French oil company Perenco has filed expressions of interest in two of the Coastal Basin blocks on offer in the giant oil auction the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) launched last July. Oil Minister Didier Budimbu visited the zone last Saturday to inaugurate new Perenco installations. A recent Greenpeace Africa field mission to the Coastal Basin, where the company has been present for nearly a quarter of a century, reveals strong opposition by local communities to any further fossil fuel activity, after years of pollution and abuse.
“No political elite in Kinshasa would accept to live in the oil-drenched ecosystems where Perenco drills, or accept the poverty and intimidation that constitute its legacy,” said Patient Muamba, Greenpeace Africa forest campaigner. “The DRC government must listen to its people and block Perenco from bidding to expand its toxic enterprise in the country.”
DRC’s only operating oil company, Perenco, is currently being sued in France by Friends of the Earth France and Sherpa in order to repair environmental damage. The firm is also being investigated by France’s National Financial Prosecutor’s office for “corruption of foreign public officials” in Africa. The multinational has a dark record in Gabon, Peru, and Guatemala, and is recently responsible for an oil spill in the UK.
The Congo oil auction has faced a barrage of criticism from Congolese and international scientists and NGOs as a potential cataclysm for human rights, the rule of law, biodiversity and the climate. Although deadlines for submitting expressions of interest have been extended twice, without explanation, it appears to have been shunned by Big Oil so far. Exploration contracts, most of which are to be signed during an election year in DRC, require the immediate payment of juicy signature bonuses.
Last month, just before the announcement of Perenco’s expressions of interest, Greenpeace Africa visited the three blocks of the Coastal Basin, a zone rich in mangroves located in the territories of Muanda and Lukula (Kongo-Central province), to talk with fishermen and fisherwomen, farmers, traditional leaders, young people, and local NGOs.
The pernicious impact of the oil industry is felt across the area and opposition among local communities is palpable. It echoes that of communities visited by Greenpeace Africa during three previous field trips since last July to six designated oil blocks in Equateur, Tshuapa, Haut Lomami, and Tanganyika provinces.
Only two days before our arrival, a huge fire broke out in Mangroves National Park, in a storage area for fuel imported from Angola. The Park is an internationally-recognized biodiversity hotspot, home to sea turtles, manatees and hippos. The oil explosion reduced approximately 500 m² of mangroves to ashes and caused significant water pollution. While Perenco wasn’t involved in the incident, it demonstrates the risks of expanding the oil industry in this ecosystem.
The company is infamous among locals. On 19 April Muanda was paralyzed by city-wide protests on various issues, some avenues barricaded with burning tires. Similar protests have been going on for years, often met by violent repression. Recently, residents have been demanding that a USD 10 million payment by Perenco be invested in the electrification of the city.
The villages lie within the Matamba-Makanzi II block, for which the Nigerian firm Century Energy Services and a certain “Kebo Energy” have filed expressions of interest. Perenco has filed expressions of interest for the Nganzi and Yema II blocks.
In Malela, a resident says no one there is aware of the existence of the oil auction: “We don’t understand why the government has to treat us as if we don’t exist and have no right to know what is planned for our lands.”
Already, restrictions imposed by the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) for protecting the area’s biodiversity, are making life difficult for fishermen and fisherwomen. Some fear oil exploration would impose further restrictions.
In Kimbanza and Malemba, residents complained that no one from the Oil Ministry had come to consult them. They knew their area might be at risk – about a decade ago the oil company Surestream had carried out unsuccessful seismic studies in the area. Now they reject any new oil development.
One resident, who worked for Perenco for decades, wonders: “How can the government approve this kind of project without telling us anything?”
Malemba residents are working on a management plan for their community forest concession, awarded in January, which they hope will block any land grabbing by a government-backed Perenco: “No one will come and take our land away from us, we already have legal rights!” says one community member.
Inhabitants of Matamba-Makanzi, which lies within the Yema II block, say they received a visit from individuals presenting themselves as Oil Ministry officials, but the latter told them absolutely nothing about any oil tender. They were only looking for guides to accompany them to the boundary between the Yema II and Matamba-Makanzi II blocks.
Neither villagers nor local civil society groups are aware of any environmental impact assessment done in the past 25 years
Activists in the area listed the complaints that Friends of the Earth France and Sherpa have brought before the French courts. Several scientific studies, investigations from Congolese and international civil society organisations and the Congolese Senate have revealed the installation of wells and flares near homes and fields, oil spills, waste incineration, the dumping of sludge and toxic waste in rivers, and land erosion.
One of the local activists says: “The exploitation of oil impoverishes us and makes us suffer. Young people are being used for useless work. I’d never work for Perenco – even if it were the only employer in Kongo Central!”.
Perenco did not respond to the issues raised by local communities when contacted by Greenpeace Africa.
Australia has raised its climate targets and now needs to accelerate its clean energy transition
Australia is taking positive steps to increase its climate and clean energy ambitions. The International Energy Agency has reviewed Australia’s progress and recommends that it continues to strengthen its policies and long-term plans to ensure it meets its targets.
Today, Australia is a major exporter of both fossil fuels and the critical minerals used in many clean energy technologies. A successful clean energy transition would support the country’s economic diversification and industrial growth while providing long-term resilience against global energy market shocks, according to the new IEA report.
Since the IEA’s last review in 2018, Australia has passed the Climate Change Act in 2022, which doubles the target for emissions reductions by 2030 and sets the goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050. The Australian government also signed up to the Global Methane Pledge in 2022, joining 130 governments who are collectively targeting a reduction in methane emissions of at least 30% by 2030.
In recent months, the Australian government has presented a host of policy strategies to fast-track the country’s energy transition. The IEA review welcomes these strategies, including the Rewiring the Nation Plan, the National Energy Transformation Partnership, and National Energy Performance Strategy.
“Australia is an important player in global energy markets that is helping to meet today’s needs while advancing the transition to clean energy,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. “I welcome Australia’s efforts to drive progress on low-emissions hydrogen and supplies of critical minerals – and its leadership on working with partners, including through the IEA, to strengthen the diversity and resilience of clean energy supply chains. Our new report sets out the steps Australia can take to accelerate its own clean energy transition securely and affordably.”
The report finds that Australia can make sufficient progress on emissions reductions by 2030 to align with the goal of net zero by 2050. However, stronger efforts are needed to improve energy efficiency and boost clean energy investment. A whole-of-government approach is needed to end the country’s high reliance on fossil fuels. The IEA review calls for an updated net zero emissions reduction plan for 2050 to guide implementation across all parts of government. A national energy and climate information system is also needed to track progress towards reaching these targets.
Greater energy efficiency efforts in transport and residential buildings can help bring forward Australia’s peak in emissions and mitigate rising energy bills. The IEA review estimates that a 60% productivity improvement would be needed for a net zero aligned trajectory. The new National Building Code and the Electric Vehicle Strategy are critical steps forward in this regard.
Australia’s renewables deployment has a positive outlook thanks to the success of rooftop solar, ambitious targets, and increased funding at federal and state levels. Three million Australian households, the equivalent of one in three, have solar PV installations, together accounting for 17 gigawatts of capacity.
Power sector decarbonisation efforts need to be stepped up considerably, as Australia aims to increase the share of low-carbon power generation by 2030 – with 82% to come from renewable energy, up from 27% today. This will require an accelerated implementation of renewable energy zones, faster permitting of grid related projects, and additional coal retirements.
The Covid-19 pandemic, supply chain disruptions, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine created a new set of energy security challenges for all IEA members, including Australia. In 2022, Australia’s domestic gas and electricity markets experienced supply disruptions and rising prices. The Australian government has enacted laws and programmes aimed at boosting fuel security at home. Based on lessons learned from recent energy crises, investment in clean energy infrastructure, grids, energy system flexibility, and fuel availability should be key priorities for Australia’s orderly transition.
One of Australia’s security challenges is its exposure to frequent and extreme weather events. The energy sector – from production and generation to transport and distribution – will need to be more resilient to better cope with ever more disruptive storms, flooding, wildfires, and heat waves. Australia has yet to complete a comprehensive assessment of climate change impacts on the energy sector outside of electricity. A national-level energy sector plan that lays out future steps for climate resilience is needed.
Australia also has the potential to play a key role in providing critical minerals and new technologies for clean energy transitions globally. It produces cobalt, rare-earth elements, and lithium, of which it is the single largest producer. In 2022, Australia’s Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain (HESC) project produced and transported liquified hydrogen to Japan, the world’s first such shipment. Australia has a broad range of demonstration projects for low-emission hydrogen and carbon capture and storage development, which are also critical for the decarbonisation of industrial sectors where emissions are hardest to reduce.
IEA analysis on wide range of fuels and technologies for Japan’s G7 Presidency
New reports on hydrogen, steel, renewables integration and natural gas – as well as work on critical minerals and road transport emissions – help inform G7 energy and climate agenda
The IEA has produced a wide range of new analysis on key energy and climate topics for Japan’s Presidency of the G7, including reports on hydrogen, steel, renewables integration and natural gas – as well as contributions on critical minerals, clean energy supply chains, energy efficiency and reducing emissions from road transport.
The different analytical outputs are helping inform governments of leading economies ahead of the G7 Ministers’ Meeting on Climate, Energy and Environment in Sapporo, Japan, on 15-16 April and the G7 Hiroshima Summit on 19-21 May. They were requested by the Japanese government to support discussions among G7 countries and provide insights and direction for the G7 energy and climate agenda. But the reports offer valuable analysis that is not limited to the G7 and can help inform policy making in countries around the world in these areas.
On hydrogen, the report Towards Hydrogen Definitions Based on Their Emissions Intensity seeks to improve transparency on the emissions intensity of hydrogen production in order to bring much-needed clarity and facilitate investment. Most large-scale projects for the production of low-emissions hydrogen are facing important bottlenecks. Issues such as uncertainty about future demand, an absence of necessary infrastructure, and a lack of regulatory clarity are preventing project developers from taking firm investment decisions.
Using colours to refer to different production routes – or terms such as “sustainable”, “low-carbon” or “clean” hydrogen – obscures many different levels of potential emissions. This terminology has proved impractical as a basis for contracting decisions, deterring potential investors, the report notes. By agreeing to use the emissions intensity of hydrogen production in the definition of national regulations about hydrogen, governments can facilitate market and regulatory interoperability. The new report aims to assist governments in doing so by assessing the emissions intensity of individual hydrogen production routes so that governments can decide which level aligns with their own circumstances.
On steel, the report Emissions Measurement and Data Collection for a Net Zero Steel Industry, continues work undertaken during Germany’s G7 Presidency in 2022. The implementation phase for achieving a net zero steel industry will require robust methodologies for measuring emissions at the site- and product-level, together with data collection frameworks to facilitate comparison and track progress.
Following an evaluation of existing methodologies and frameworks for the steel industry, the report provides “net zero principles” to guide potential next steps for their development and implementation, together with specific policy recommendations for G7 members.
On renewables integration, the report Managing Seasonal and Interannual Variability of Renewables explores the integration of variable renewables such as wind and solar in future power systems where their share of annual electricity generation rises beyond 70%. Thanks to the successful use of flexibility resources – from stronger grids and interconnections to demand-side measures, affordable storage and dispatchable power supply – many countries have already securely and efficiently integrated significant shares of variable renewables in their electricity generation.
As wind and solar continue to grow as a proportion of generation, system level surpluses and periods of lower generation will eventually expand beyond hour-to-hour or daily variations to seasonal timescales. The report examines the potential flexibility needs for this, focusing on four different climatic regions and highlighting the potential role of existing thermal power capacities and of hydropower plants in providing seasonal flexibility and capacity during critical periods of the year. At the same time, it notes that as energy systems transition towards net zero emissions, all flexibility services will need to be fully decarbonised.
On natural gas, the report Outlooks for Gas Markets and Investment looks at the uncertainty around natural gas supply and demand, using insights from the scenarios underpinning the World Energy Outlook 2022, as well as a selection of other global scenario-based assessments. In the context of the current global energy crisis and efforts to tackle climate change, the report considers the key drivers affecting prospects for natural gas – with a particular focus on emerging and developing economies in Asia.
These are some of the latest instances of the IEA’s long-running work with the G7 to develop policy advice on energy security and clean energy transitions.
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