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Guest commentary

Turning waste into opportunity

 “We are expecting the market for waste treatment and energy production to steadily grow in Europe over the next decade.” Andris Piebalgs, European Energy Commissioner

Andris Piebalgs, European Energy Commissioner, on the importance of waste energy
recovery for an effective energy strategy within the European Union


The European Commission proposed in January 2008 a far-reaching package of proposals that will deliver the European Council’s commitments to fight climate change and promote renewable energy. The package seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the EU by at least 20% and to increase to 20% the share of renewable energies in the energy consumption by 2020, as agreed by EU leaders in March 2007. The emissions reduction will be increased to 30% by 2020 when a new global climate change agreement is reached.


In a time of growing oil prices and climate change concerns, renewable energy sources are an adequate solution and opportunity. Renewable energy sources will help us reduce our CO2 emissions, strengthen our security of supply and develop the high tech sector. If we make the effort now, Europe will be the leader in the race towards the low carbon economy that the planet so desperately needs.



EU Strategy on waste recycling
In this context, energy raw materials need to be exploited in the right conditions. This is particularly the case for the waste materials that offer an interesting and sustainable source of energy. In order to ensure the

 Andris Piebalgs has been the EU’s Energy Commissioner since 2004. The 51-year-old physicist from Latvia is fluent in five languages.

proper management of such a source, the EU has been establishing the rules and developed a thematic strategy on the prevention and recycling of waste. This long-term strategy aims to help Europe become a recycling society that seeks to avoid waste and uses waste as a resource. As a first step, the Commission proposed the revision of the 1975 Waste Framework Directive to set recycling standards and to include an obligation for EU Member States to develop national waste prevention programmes. This revision will also merge, streamline and clarify legislation, contributing to better regulation.




EU Waste management for energy production
The dominating state of the art, waste to energy technology in Europe is mixed waste incineration in grate boilers for power. But there is also a wide variety of waste management practices in EU member states. Some countries are achieving high levels of material recovery and energy recycling rates, others are underperforming and need to strongly support the market deployment of the recycling/recovery measures.


Overall, landfilling is still the most frequent practice in the EU with a rate of about 40% of all waste produced. Recycling and composting account for 40% and incineration and waste to energy account to about 20%. One of the main waste sources is household/municipal waste. According to recent statistics from Eurostat, about 250 million tons were generated in the EU in 2005 with a high proportion of bio waste (about 45%–113 million of tons). The renewable proportion of household waste, defined as “biodegradable fraction of the waste”, varies in a range of 30–70%. The primary energy production by combustion of renewable municipal waste is estimated at 6.1 Mtoes in 2007 and generated 14 TWh. This represents 18% of all biomass electricity generation. Although this represents still a rather moderate share of the total renewable electricity (464 TWh) it however should increase in the next years to contribute more significantly to the renewables energy target for 2020. As at present only about 20% of bio waste are really used for energy purposes, it is necessary that waste companies and businesses continue making efforts to develop new innovative waste management concepts and energy conversion technologies. One important element to support further exploitation of waste resources is given by the Landfill directive that requires that less than 35% of the organic waste streams is landfilled in 2016.




Evolution of waste energy recovery
To meet the target of the EC Landfill directive EU Member States need to reduce landfilling significantly. Benefits are not only in terms of material resources but will also result in terms of reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. In Europe we expect a continuous growth of the market for waste treatment and power generation in the next decade. According to various studies, this would correspond to the creation of more than 100 new Waste to Energy plants with an increased capacity of treatment between 13 to 15 million tons per year. Beside the plants dedicated to incinerate the waste materials, there are other installations and technologies to generate electricity/heat. The co-combustion of waste materials with fossil fuels is currently also an economically attractive solution as well as biogas production via anaerobic digestion technology. Gasification and pyrolysis processes also offer high potential solutions to recover the energy content of such waste but these still need technical developments. Therefore, the EU should dedicate the necessary support to ensure the proper evolution of those technologies as to achieve better electricity efficiency and find cost effective technical solutions to the current limitations of the technologies.


The Commission acknowledges such technology challenges and contributes to this overall effort supporting the activities related to the Research and Technological Development of the 7th research Framework Programme.



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