The phrase “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is particularly true in the developing world, where thousands of communities rely on landfills for shelter, commerce, and sustenance. Now, energy can be added to that treasure trove thanks to recent developments in renewable energy production.
Methane production has been the focus of climate change and renewable energy debates for the last few years. While the biogas generated from the agriculture industry has been a front runner in alternative energy production, governments around the globe are also looking to their landfills as another renewable energy solution. A pilot project in the Philippines involving the UN, the Philippine government and GE (among others) is responding to the country’s increased needs for energy outputs via this method and is simultaneously succeeding in reducing waste in its landfills.
The Payatas Pilot Project was developed by Pangea Green Energy Philippines, a large consultancy company focused on developing clean energy solutions. The project began in Quezon City, Metro Manila in 2008 as a response to the UN’s then-recent Clean Development Mechanism, a UN effort to encourage developing countries to invest more in clean energy and rely less on the burning of fossil fuels.
Under the Mechanism, developing countries that develop emission-reduction projects are rewarded with certified emission reduction credits (equivalent to 2000 t of CO2). Under the Kyoto Protocol, industrialized countries can earn credits by funding emission-reduction projects in developing countries, and developing countries can trade or sell the credits their earn from the projects they undertake to companies, institutions, or governments to offset their emission production and meet their reduction targets.
From Garbage to Electricity
The project has instituted 6 methane plants nationwide and in generating free electricity from the rotting garbage at the core of the landfill. Pipes are dug into the landfill to capture the methane, which is delivered to a power station where gas-powered turbines convert it into clean energy. Across the Philippines and indeed across the developing world there are many slum communities that exist at the base of landfills. Thanks to this project, those living in such communities are receiving free electricity generated by the waste that surrounds them. What began as a project harnessing just kilowatts of energy has now grown exponentially and megawatts are now being sold directly to Manila’s grid on a regular basis.
The project is of particular import to the Philippines and Metro Manila in particular, where waste removal infrastructure is sub-par and between 6-8000 t of waste is generated every single day. While some critics suggest that this model of power generation actually promotes waste production due to the byproduct it creates, the longer-term environmental benefits to converting methane to energy offset these concerns. If not captured, methane has a significantly higher “climate-warming potential” than CO2 and landfill methane in particular is cited as being over 20x more potent than CO2.
The project is important because the country is experiencing a massive surge in growth and needs to double its power generation capacity. For this reason, the country has experienced a rise in use of fossil fuels like coal and gas for electricity and as such, the country’s use of renewable energy is declining despite the government’s national energy plan that requires that more than half of the generated power be derived from renewable sources.
Acknowledging this and the success of the Payatas Project, the government and power companies operating in the country are working on developing similar energy-harnessing plants in landfills all across the country. Laguna Province has recently developed a similar project using GE turbines and has seen a 70% drop in emissions since it commenced operation. Areas surrounding these plants are also experiencing a drop in air pollution and water contamination.
Given that weak waste removal infrastructure is characteristic of many developing countries, there is massive potential for the overflowing landfills and the slum communities that surround them to benefit from this kind of power production. Some nations in South and Central America and South East Asia would benefit most because landfills in humid, rainy locales provide the perfect conditions to ramp up decomposition and produce higher levels of methane, which results in increased energy production. This method of alternative energy has been in use in industrialized countries for some time, but is likely to benefit developing nations the most, where electricity is scarce and waste is not.
For more on the use of methane and waste for energy, click here.