This post is one in a series of feature stories on trends shaping advanced energy markets in the U.S. and around the world, drawn from Advanced Energy Now 2015 Market Report, which was prepared for AEE by Navigant Research.
While one of the key indicators of a society’s advance is the degree to which it can distance itself from its trash, waste is increasingly viewed as a strategic resource. Recently surpassing 7 billion people, the world’s population is not only growing in number, but its propensity to consume is also accelerating. In 2014, an estimated 1.5 billion tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) was generated globally. This total is expected to surpass 2 billion tons annually within the next 10 years. According to the World Bank’s 2012 report “What a Waste,” the amount of MSW generated worldwide is growing faster than the rate of urbanization. With waste generation rates set to more than double over the next 20 years in low- and middle-income countries, the costs of managing waste disposal are expected to see a steep rise – but so are opportunities to leverage advanced technologies across the waste value chain.
A focus on waste as a strategic renewable resource for material and energy recovery is at the heart of an emerging smart waste revolution. Navigant Research estimates the Smart MSW market to generate more than $40 billion in revenue over the next decade. Specifically, smart waste technologies enable greater levels of automation, integration of IT, utilization of data analytics, and the recovery of valuable materials and latent energy.
Energy recovery represents the largest and most mature segment in the MSW value chain. In the U.S. and other developed economies, MSW is increasingly diverted from landfills to advanced facilities for use as a feedstock for renewable power or advanced biofuels. Combustion-based waste-to-energy (WTE) infrastructure and landfill gas recovery projects make up the largest share of the energy recovery market, contributing to nearly $500 million in annual revenue in the U.S. alone.
WTE technologies are incineration, biological, or gasification-based platforms that utilize waste as a feedstock for the production of electric and thermal energy. Robust, simple, and proven, incineration technologies currently lead the market. More than 800 WTE facilities are deployed in at least 40 countries. WTE facilities are much more advanced than incinerators, their outdated predecessors, typically employing sophisticated emissions control systems. Advanced thermal treatment of waste -- including technologies such as pyrolysis and gasification – are claimed to be superior to mass burn incineration systems, but widespread deployment remains hampered by scale-up issues.
Landfill gas (LFG), or methane gas captured from waste as it decays in closed landfills, used to generate electricity is a standard technology for energy recovery employed in most industrialized countries. LFG can also be used in combined heat and power (CHP) systems or as a supplement to natural gas. Bioreactor landfills are an emerging engineered solution within the smart waste technology landscape that can increase the rate of production of methane at the landfill site for commercial purposes. Supported by organic waste bans in select states (such as Massachusetts) and cities (such as San Francisco), large-scale anaerobic digesters, which capture methane from food and wastewater in dedicated facilities, are also increasing in number.
Although the United States is in many ways a less mature smart waste market than Europe, with its zero landfilling initiatives, industry leaders like Waste Management and Republic Services have begun making strategic investments in advanced technologies. These include upgrading garbage truck fleets to run off natural gas and biomethane, optimizing truck routes using GPS and RFID tagging to reduce fuel spend, and converting MSW into high-value fuels and chemicals.