Finding a place for energy from waste in NSW

Professional services company GHD believes the NSW Government should reconsider current policies on the location of Energy from Waste (EfW) plants if this technology is to play a key role in managing residual wastes and meeting future energy needs.

According to David Gamble, Senior Technical Director – Waste Infrastructure at GHD, “EfW facilities have been operating safely and effectively in other countries for decades, reducing the amount of waste going into landfill and contributing towards sustainable energy use. In the Netherlands, for example, only 1.4% of waste is landfilled, and more than 40% of waste is incinerated.”

The NSW Government’s Waste and Sustainable Materials Strategy 2041, released in 2021, identified the need for one EfW plant to service Greater Sydney by 2030 and a further two by 2040. However, despite the many benefits of the technology and support from government, no EfW plant has been approved in NSW to date.

The NSW Energy from Waste Infrastructure Plan, also published in 2021, states that EfW plants should be located close to existing or planned infrastructure, be away from high density residential areas, be connected to existing or planned road or rail infrastructure, be compatible with environmental and climatic factors (air quality), create jobs, provide secure and sustainable access to energy in locations that need it, attract investment and economic opportunities to communities who need it, and support existing waste, net zero and regional growth strategies.

The plan nominates just four precincts, all greater than 140 km from Sydney. In addition, the State Environmental Planning Policy (Transport and Infrastructure) 2021 includes a Thermal Energy from Waste Prohibition Map which effectively prohibits EfW within an area larger than Greater Sydney. This has resulted in proponents discontinuing or withdrawing their development applications. There remains one EfW plant undergoing planning assessment consideration and one EfW in the planning stage, within the nominated precincts.

By 2025, the NSW Government will assess the need for additional EfW capacity, and again by 2030. If required, additional EfW priority infrastructure areas will be considered, including former mining and electricity generation sites, Special Activation Precincts and Regional Jobs Precincts, however only where they meet the principles of the policy.

“Existing industrial-zoned areas are not specifically mentioned in the policy,” said David. “We have many of these across the state and they offer the added advantage of being able to use waste heat as well as 24-hour baseload power. Approval of two EfW plants at East Rockingham and Kwinana in Western Australia shows how EfW can fit into industrial areas and be integrated into waste and resource recovery thinking.

“If EfW facilities are to become an integral part of the accepted waste management landscape by 2030, policy decisions around locations will need to be reconsidered in consultation with local councils and community, and with industry which is ready and waiting to turn our waste into energy.”

In Europe, there are hundreds of EfW facilities, with many built within cities, and located relatively close to residential areas, enabling the heat generated to be used for district heating or cooling, or industrial uses. Furthermore, these plants have been demonstrated to consistently meet the very strict EU air quality emissions limits, and are well below the criteria for most pollutants. Even tighter air emissions standards would apply to any EfW plant established in NSW under the Energy from Waste Policy.

The Afvel Erergie Bedrijf (AEB) plant in the harbour area of Amsterdam, which David recently visited, is the second-largest EfW plant in the world (after Dubai), and processes up to 1.5 million tonnes annually. This includes waste from the Netherlands, as well as baled waste brought by train from Rome, which is in the process of establishing its first EfW plant. The AEB plant is located approximately 4 km from the nearest residential area, and provides district heating to 30,000 Amsterdam households, as well as electricity to the grid. This replaces the natural gas they were formerly using for heating.

At 30% electrical efficiency, the AEB plant is the most thermally efficient EfW plant in the world. Actual emissions are less than 20% of the EU limits, and its operation avoids approximately 700,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions being generated annually (based on 1.5 million tonnes input). The plant has been in operation at that location since 1917, with more than four upgrades to meet the latest emissions standards and expand capacity. It has been a feature of the City of Amsterdam for decades and shows that EfW facilities can be located close to residential areas without significant environmental and social impacts.

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