Waste-To-Energy Technology in Africa is Growing

Africa is hungry for energy. But according to the World Economic Forum, the energy generation capacity of the entire African continent (excluding South Africa) in 2021 was only 28 Gigawatts – equal to the Argentinian potential. Is the waste-to-energy technology able to deliver solutions?

In 2018, the African Union set itself the ambition that “African cities will recycle at least 50 percent of the waste they generate by 2023”. But in February 2023, the United Nations Environment Programme gave account that “an estimated 70 to 80 percent of the MSW generated in Africa is recyclable, yet only four percent of MSW is currently recycled”. A paper on “Potential of Waste to Energy in African Urban Areas” written by Emmanuel Anosisye Mwangomo makes clear that in 2025, there will be enough waste for energy recovery in Africa: 244,303,000 tons per year of waste generated and 167,525,000 tons per year collected. The potential energy recovery from waste generated for incineration and for landfills was indicated as 2,198,724 (Terrajoule, TJ) and 529,813 TJ, respectively per year, while waste collected for burning and for landfill gas recovery added up to 1,507,728 TJ and 363,244 TJ per year respectively. Back to reality: In 2019, the newspaper Africa Report notified that “to date, only one WtE developer of note has successfully constructed and started operating a major waste-fed power project in Africa”.

Existing or in the pipeline
Disregarding this plant – Reppie in Ethiopia – there are several biogas facilities or other municipal solid waste-fed plants in Africa, existing or in the pipeline. For example, the 2.4-megawatt (MW) Gorge Farm Anaerobic Digestion Power Plant in Naivasha, Kenya, runs on vegetable and flower waste. According to ESI Africa, a 400-kilowatt (kW) Hybrid-PV-Biogas-Pyrolysis plant – the first for Ghana – is planned to convert 12 tons of waste into bio-fertilizer and energy daily. The medium-scale power plant combines 200 kW energy from solar, 100 kW from biogas and 100 kW from the pyrolysis of plastic waste. The Bronkhorstspruit Biogas Plant in South Africa, carried out by Bio2Watt Ltd, is the first industrial-scale waste-to-energy facility on the continent. The plant – investment costs 38.5 million US-Dollar – is built to produce biogas from the fermentation of organic waste. The 240.000 tons of organic waste deliver biogas to be combusted and used to generate electricity. In South Africa, in 2025, the state-of-the-art biogas plant will be built to convert organic waste into biogas and then to electricity for Cape Town. In Zimbabwe, the planned solid waste-fired thermal Bulawayo Waste-to-Energy power plant is expected to convert solid waste into biodiesel and biogas to generate electricity.

6 of 17 LFGE projects realized
These few examples give an impression of the different approaches, but also of the multiple, if not unique, interest of several African actors to exchange waste with energy. But it is too early to speak of a general transition. In the Republic of South Africa (RAS), for example, not even the state of landfill gas to energy is prioritized by the government. A scientific paper on “Waste-to-energy in a developing country” shows that the country continues to invest in coal-fired power stations, “owing to the abundance, availability, and low costs of coal reserves, which will supply coal for the next 200 years”. In spite of some progress in the utilization of landfill gas and 17 planned landfill gas to energy (LFGE) projects, six are operational generating 15 MW of electricity and three were decommissioned due to technical problems. The paper specifies several reasons why the implementation of LFGE projects was “progressing under a slower rate”: lack of waste data, lack of public awareness, lack of funding, high capital and operating costs, too little institutional capacity, the tedious and complex tender process and similar the registration under the Clean Development Mechanism. And: “Utilizing WtE technology such as LFGE in Republic of South Africa to manage waste is not attractive, because the costs of LFGE are relatively higher compared to conventional technologies”. The RES4Africa Foundation adds another obstacle: “Aging grids and a lack of infrastructure are slowing down progress in Africa.”

Successful: Reppie
On the contrary, the before-mentioned waste-to-energy-plant Reppie in Ethiopia is “successfully constructed and started operating a major waste-fed power project in Africa”, the newspaper Africa Report wrote. The Koshe-Reppie Waste to Energy plant results of a partnership between the Government of Ethiopia and a consortium of international companies: Cambridge Industries Limited (Singapore), China National Electric Engineering and Ramboll, a Danish engineering firm, the UNEP put out. (Another source means that Ethiopian Electric, being advised by Ramboll, is the third partner.) Reppie is a 120 million US-Dollar project (another source says 95 million US-Dollar, a third 118), needs a feedstock of about 1,400 tons per day, waste is combusted at a minimum temperature of 850°C, the plant is established to generate 185 GWh electricity per year, a world class Flue Gas Treatment is planned, and information on the plant’s pollutant emissions was said to be published in real-time. Massreshaw Assnakew Abebe wrote that in an article on “Challenges of Waste to Energy Facility in Reppie”. He did not hide that the plant has to handle leachate from storage, dispose of unusual wastes and residual ashes, generate wastewater and release exhaust gases as well as noise emissions. (And he forgot to mention that hundreds of waste pickers lost their jobs.)

However, the United Nations Environment Programme recommended the plant as “a first in Africa”. Zerubabel Getachew, Ethiopia’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations in Nairobi, saw the project as “just one component of Ethiopia’s broader strategy to address pollution and embrace renewable energy across all sectors of the economy”. And he added: “We hope that Reppie will serve as a model for other countries in the region and around the world.”

A fundamentally wrong technology?
Fraol Alemu, a Graduate Student at the Ethiopia Hawassa University, disagrees. In his opinion, the Reppie plant “failed”. He argues that African countries would need small-scale incinerators to handle hazardous waste generated in medical and industrial processes, for example. He assesses incineration for energy a “fundamentally wrong and misplaced choice of technology” for the domestic waste consisting of 60 to 75 percent biodegradable material. And for the same amount of money, “the Addis Ababa city administration could have had an efficient Integrated Solid Waste Management System that would have created thousands of jobs”. For GAIA, the Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives, Ethiopia’s approach to its trash problem is “wrong-headed” and waste-to-energy has no place in Africa in principle. GAIA relates to UNEP and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA). According to them, “waste incineration is especially unfeasible for low- and middle-income countries due to its cost-prohibitive nature and unsuitable waste composition”.

An effective means of treating
Nevertheless, in its latest White Book on Energy-from-Waste Technologies, ISWA declared: “Waste thermal treatment is a clean and compact technology that can be adopted in the central areas of cities.” UNEP has also accepted specific waste incineration: “Thermal WtE has received considerable attention in developing countries due to its potential benefits for energy generation and reducing waste volume. Globally, more than 200 thermal WtE plants are currently under construction and will be operational between 2020 and 2023.” The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2019 took sides with WtE: “In the long term, poor access to energy and electricity services hampers development prospects and the weakness of sub-Saharan power grids represents a significant cost for national economies. Waste-to-energy plants appear as an effective means of treating these two problems as one.”

Only 0.6 percent of global investment
No rose without thorns; not all WtE-technologies are applicable. The before mentioned “Potential of Waste to Energy”-paper points out that apart from environmental aspects, there must be some attention paid to technical and some socio-economic facts. Waste-to-Energy projects with its technology require “high skilled technical expertise for both operation and maintenance” that, in most cases, must be imported from countries outside Africa. The technique requires “high investment, operation and maintenance costs” that must be compensated through electricity for sale.

The previous financial support of the African or – more precisely – the sub-Saharian Africa energy sector leaves much to be desired. The continent is facing rapidly growing energy demand, critical energy access gaps, and an imperative for development, according to a comprehensive brochure titled “Africa’s Energy Future is Renewable” and edited by the RES4Africa Foundation. Instead, in 2021 only 0.6 percent of renewable energy investment or 2.6 billion US-Dollar went to Africa, while global investment reached record-high levels of 434 billion US-Dollar.

Interest raised significantly
Anyway, the prospects of the branch are promising. As the RES4Africa Foundation-paper underlines, “the renewable energy sector has the potential to create vast employment opportunities across the value chain”. It is “expected to grow from 300,000 jobs today to up to 8 million jobs by 2050”. These numbers might be too speculative. But in the opinion of Waste to Energy International (WTEI), a team of international environmentalists, engineers, economists and project developers, “the outgoing 2021 was marked by a rapidly increasing activity in waste to energy in Africa: new trends inspired several recent projects. It looks like the continent’s general interest in waste-to-energy rose significantly. A number of countries expressed their desire to have incineration and pyrolysis.”

The “African Business Guide” paper is also convinced that, in any case, the waste business is “profitable”, as the potential of recyclable material is “increasingly recognized” and local recycling branches are developing.

Private investors are asked
According to the “African Business Guide”, released by Mittelstand Global, Germany Trade & Invest and the German Ministry of Economy and Climate Protection, “there is a lack of modern technology, know-how and in many cases financial facilities. The communities need one fifth of their budget solely for their waste disposal. That is why international disposer and private investors are asked. German entrepreneurs are already active in the waste branch and water sector. In the future, the demand on the continent will probably grow further and, likewise, the chances for German entrepreneurs.”

If German or not: Of course, each new waste-to-energy plant is a custom-made product developed for the particular requirements of the country, population, energy demand, technical infrastructure, funding, site, catchment, waste materials and more. In any case, the following advice needs to be noted: “It helps to have investors who understand the WtE market.”

(Published in GLOBAL RECYCLING Magazine 1/2024, Page 22, Photo: Martin Mecnarowski / stock.adobe.com)