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Switching energy supply from fossils to renewables is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st Century and it is a highly topical issue. The aim of Germany's so-called energy transition is to ensure the country has a reliable supply of affordable and, above all, environmentally friendly energy. Renewable energy plays a central role here alongside the need to have a decentralised and flexible supply of energy.1 Biomass is one of the biggest contributors of renewable energy in Germany. The term ’biomass’ covers various types of material including solid and liquid biomass, biogas, sewage and landfill gas and the biogenic contents of waste. Currently, approx. 3.4 % of electricity and around 7.2 % of heat are produced from renewable energy.2 These figures, however, do not express the full potential of the contribution of the waste management sector towards energy production.
Prof. Klaus Gellenbeck
The German waste management sector already produces a good three percent of the country's electricity.
The waste management sector offers a wide range of energy producing opportunities and these are already making a major contribution towards energy production in Germany today. The most important processes here are the thermal treatment of waste in waste incineration plants (WIP), using refuse derived fuels (RDF) to generate energy in RDF power plants and the co-incineration of waste at cement works and power stations. Using biogas to generate energy is also growing in importance. Here, biogas is produced from the anaerobic digestion of the biogenic contents in waste and then transformed into electricity and gas. As a result, the waste management sector is helping to provide a decentralised supply of energy and reduce Germany's greenhouse gas emissions.
Priority here is put on using the energy intelligently. This applies in particular to energy produced as a co-product, for example heat generated as a result of thermally treating waste. As the majority of waste incineration plants, which generate heat as a co-product, are located in more remote areas, there is often a lack of potential customers in the direct vicinity able to use the heat. Intelligent solutions are needed in such cases, such as marketing the heat as district heat.3
The waste management sector is already making a major contribution towards energy production in Germany today.
The total contribution of the waste management sector towards the production of electricity in Germany lies at around 19 TWh a year. Looking at the annual gross production of electricity in Germany, namely approx. 620 TWh, the waste management sector currently produces around 3 % of the country's electricity. This share of around three percent may appear to be relatively low; it is, however, a constant supply of power that can, to a certain extent, be regulated. This makes it an important source of energy – in particular from a regional point of view – especially as neither wind nor solar power systems are able to generate a steady supply of electricity. Furthermore, this ongoing supply of energy helps to stabilise the grid and contributes towards evening out the increasingly fluctuating supply of electricity resulting from the energy transition.4
The fourteen terawatt hours of heat produced each year could cover the heating requirements of more than 2.1 million people.
The waste management sector also generates a significant amount of heat. Added together, for example, the waste incineration plants in Germany generate around 14 TWh per year. All in all, the WIPs are the biggest producers of electricity and thermal energy in the waste management sector. The following provides a few examples: approx. 3,500 wind turbines would be needed to substitute the amount of electricity generated by WIPs (ca. 7 TWh per year) with wind power. Were it to be substituted with solar energy, then approx. 74 km² of solar panels (9,250 football pitches) would have to be set up. The annual volume of heat produced by WIPs, namely around 14 TWh, could be used to heat approx. 85 million square metres of living space, i.e. the heating requirements of more than 2.1 million people.5
As far as materials recycling is concerned, it is also true to say that the use of secondary materials generally consumes less energy than using primary sources.
Waste management companies are looking at other ways to contribute towards the energy switch by increasing the amount of renewable energy they generate.
Besides the above-mentioned “conventional” methods of producing energy, waste management companies are also looking at other ways to contribute towards the energy switch and prevent climate change by increasing the amount of electricity they generate. Two such examples are solar and wind power. Closed landfill sites are not only a fitting location for solar farms, they are also particularly suitable for wind farms. One advantage of landfills is that they are, for the most part, situated far away from residential and other built-up areas which means there is less likely to be problems with local residents regarding noise pollution and shadow flicker. Moreover, landfills that have been closed down generally have areas of higher ground which is ideal for wind turbines as they are then more exposed to the wind.
The INFA Institute recently examined the set up at a district in Germany to assess the contribution made by the waste management sector there to local energy supply. Taking the local conditions and a number of other factors into account, it discovered that the contribution was clearly positive – with the waste management sector, in this example, producing more than 5 times the district's actual energy requirements. This clearly demonstrates the important contribution the waste management sector is making towards the energy switch and many similar such examples can be found across Germany.
The energy transition is a highly topical issue.
These increased efforts to contribute towards the energy switch and prevent climate change are often being made at municipal level. Many projects are currently being carried out – in particular by district authorities and their waste management businesses – to assess the contribution made by the waste management sector towards the energy transition, often with the help of the INFA Institute. The results of such evaluations can be used for local PR work to show local residents how their region is contributing towards the energy switch. For this is a subject that is uppermost in many people’s minds, especially since the events in Fukushima in 2011 and the German government's subsequent decision to phase out nuclear power – it is a highly topical issue.