Bringing WtE as an energy source from sci-fi into reality

By Simone Lawson, STEINERT Australia marketing manager

IN an expanding world where traditional forms of energy production are contributing to the depletion of natural resources and adding to environmental issues such as global warming and pollution, the need to innovate and employ alternate energy sourceshas become crucial to our future.

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Waste to Energy can and should play a role in energy production in Australia.

Waste to Energy (WtE) is one such alternative energy source that is slowly beginning to gain traction in Australia with ‘slowly’ being the operative, as the concept of turning waste to fuel had flashed across our screens as early as the 1980s and has been used as an alternative energy source in many countries for some time. Yet, in Australia its merits are still debated in the political and business arenas.

This predicament reminds me of Back to the Future, as in Doc Brown, DeLorean and Marty McFly. In the film we see Doc’s DeLorean, the car-turned-time machine, whose ‘flux capacitor’ allowed it to move between the ages. It shifted from being originally fuelled by plutonium to becoming ‘Mr Fusion’ – a home energy generator from the future that was powered by extracting hydrogen atoms from garbage.

This fusion generator is close to what current WtE technologies represent. Doc Brown was effectively turning trash into fuel - something that may have been a wild sci-fi concept in the 1980s, but which has become a reality. A reality that is not quite as simple as putting rubbish directly into the fuel department of a car via ‘Mr Fusion’, but an energy derived from the vast waste mountains around the world using technologies such as gasification and pyrolysis for processing household rubbish and food wastes.

Our search for more efficient energy recovery has stimulated many countries, including Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, US, UK and Germany to lead the way in adopting and utilising waste as a source of energy. So, why are some countries, even countries much smaller than Australia, willing to use WtE technology to become self-sufficient in their energy generation and supply, but Australia lags behind in investing and accepting proven technologies to ensure the long-term security of energy sources for the country?

Even as Australia faces a potential energy crisis with the closing of the coal-fire powered Hazelwood plant and the looming closure of the Liddell plant, we are still debating the merits of WtE. With no secure and reliable backup or succession plan to support Australia’s energy generation, how can we guarantee that the rest of Australia does not encounter the same blackout problems faced by South Australia in 2016? It is not feasible nor sensible to close down power plants without having in place an alternative and reliable source of energy generation.

A recent article in The Conversation makes these concerns very clear:

‘The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) has issued several reports over the past year or so telegraphing supply shortfalls in the next couple of years. What is surprising is its view that action needs to be taken when Liddell, the AGL-owned power station in New South Wales, closes in 2022. That is five years away, and AGL has been trumpeting the decision at every opportunity, but AEMO is clearly not confident that the market will respond by delivering new generation, or storage, or demand response, to fill the gap.

‘AEMO’s job is to make sure there is enough generation available – that supply equals demand. A strategic reserve will deliver the capacity – be it gas generation, storage or demand response – that it needs to meet any shortfall. Neither coal nor wind and solar can fulfil this function. Coal takes too long to come online, while wind and solar provide intermittent supply so there is no certainty that renewable energy will be there when needed.’1

The renewable energy matrix for Australia follows the somewhat seasonable and non-continuous sources of energy: wind, solar, hydro. The WtE industry, however, is still waiting to be considered by the government as a serious contender for infrastructure funding to solve not only the issue of fuel and energy, but also resolve the waste and resource recovery issues in this country.

We need more of an open mind to resource opportunities and a little less fear mongering aimed at new technologies such as WtE. Educating ourselves about the options available for affordable and achievable energy sources is key. Let’s utilise a little more of Doc Brown’s foresight and enthusiasm for converting ‘rubbish into fuel’ to power Australia’s future.

1 David Blowers, ‘The day Australia was put on blackout alert’, The Conversation, September 6, www.theconversation.com


About STEINERT
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STEINERT is involved in the provision of WtE through its equipment which sorts and separates material.

STEINERT can sort and separate material for WtE systems while providing synergy with your objectives, such as materials recovery and/or fuel preparation. STEINERT works with some of the largest waste-to-energy companies in the world and can create a solution that is right for you. 

For more information on our magnetic separation and sensor-based sorting solutions visit our website at www.steinert.com.au

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