Energy Blog: Achieving Electricity Diversity Through Waste to Energy

Energy Blog: Achieving Electricity Diversity Through Waste to Energy

Jamaica has sky-high electricity rates and precious few places to dispose of trash. A waste-to-energy plant could meet both challenges.
I hadn’t thought about the price of electricity until I came home after a vacation and saw that my bill was almost twice as high as I was accustomed to paying. Jamaica is an island that must import fuel for its thermal power plants, and that results in an average cost of electricity that’s equivalent to $0.32 per kWh. My bill—nearly $100 – was an eye-opener, but when I started asking my friends and colleagues, I discovered they were paying even more.

I took steps to cut back on my power use. More importantly, the government is looking at adding renewable energy, with a goal of reaching 50 percent of electricity production in 2030 from sources such as biomass, solar energy, wind energy, and hydroelectric power, up from 18 percent today. One renewable energy source that is getting deserved attention is waste to energy, which would not only diversify the energy mix on the island but also have additional means of waste management.

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There’s nothing revolutionary about waste to energy. In countries such as Denmark and Sweden, WtE plants receive and sort municipal waste and then burn it. The resulting heat produces steam in a boiler, which is in turn used to generate electricity. The process reduces the need for other ways to dispose of the waste, such as landfills, and supplements the national energy system. Even in countries that are not space-constrained, the technology is being used: According to the United States Energy Information Administration, in 2019, 67 WtE plants in the U.S. incinerated 25 million tons of municipal solid waste, generating about 13 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity.

Achieving these dual goals would be a benefit to an island nation like Jamaica, which not only has to import fossil fuels but has a finite area for landfills. In the past, the Jamaican government has received proposals—both solicited and unsolicited—for the establishment of WtE plants. Unfortunately, none of these were built as the enabling environment was not in place.

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There were several factors that led to failure of these projects. For one, WtE plants require a steady stream of waste, which requires regularized trash collection and sorting—not something universally done in Jamaica. There are some questions from the certain key organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations as to whether Jamaica has the degree of economic development and urbanization to produce a sufficient stream of solid waste.

It is also common for developing countries to shelve environmental projects due to financial or technical barriers. When a project such as WtE is proposed, they must be adequately scoped, especially since the infrastructure and possible transmission costs will have to be passed on to the customers. Considering Jamaicans already pay some of the highest electricity rates in the world, public acceptance to bearing these costs would be a challenge.

At present, discussions among stakeholders have established some parameters for a WtE project: It would have a maximum generating capacity of 40 MW—about 2.5 percent of the new capacity needed to achieve the government’s renewable energy target—with a commissioning date of around 2026. The suggested next step for Jamaica is to move forward on WtE plant implementation through a competitive tender process that would involve proposals from the private sector to design, finance, build, own, and subsequently operate the various components of the project.

This plant could be the first of many. In fact, WtE plants have the potential to be Jamaica's primary means of handling municipal solid waste and could become an additional source of electricity.

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After the shock of my $100 electricity bill, I took the engineering approach to cut my energy use. I replaced my refrigerator and began employing stringent energy monitoring strategies at home. I now use a refrigerator timer, iron my clothes just once a week, and turn off all my lights when I am not in the room. Fast forward to 2021 and with these basic tips, I was able to see a drastic reduction in my bill to an average of less than $25 per month.

Would adding WtE plants significantly reduce Jamaican electricity bills? Perhaps not. It could, however, provide a more regularized approach towards garbage collection as well as energy security. And that makes it worth considering.

Dianne Plummer, P.E. is a lecturer at the School of Engineering at the University of Technology Jamaica in Kingston.

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