Carbon capture and storage is “moon landing technology and we are almost there”. And it needs to be fitted on waste-to-energy plants, say supporters of a pilot CCS system for a waste to energy plant in Oslo, Norway.
Cities face two pressing challenges over the coming decades: achieving net zero emissions and finding ways to deal with waste as landfill sites are phased out. Can they solve both at the same time?
The world’s rising waste problem
Around 1.3 billion tonnes of annual worldwide food scraps are sent to landfills each year. When it decomposes it emits methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 that already accounts for 25 per cent of current global warming.
This percentage is rising as, worldwide, waste generation is increasing faster than any other environmental pollutant.
C40 Cities claims that taking action to reduce waste can have a much faster and greater impact in combating climate change than many other means, and that if we could sustainably manage solid waste globally, this could reduce global emissions by 20 per cent.
Many cities have joined C40 to set targets for reducing waste sent to landfill.
While there is universal agreement that following the waste hierarchy is the most efficient strategy, Vegar Andersen, deputy vice mayor at the city of Oslo, Norway, for business development and public ownership, told a webinar on zero carbon and zero waste cities that “there’s always going to be a residue that’s unable to be recycled or reused, and must be incinerated to generate energy in a circular economy if the city is to eliminate waste”.
Oslo: zero carbon and zero waste
To also be a zero carbon city, the greenhouse gas emissions must be captured from incinerators. This is why Oslo has constructed a pilot CCS system for a waste to energy plant that recaptures carbon dioxide emissions for storage.
Today, there are relatively few carbon capture and storage facilities in the world in operation and none that capture CO2 from flue gas emitted by cement and waste-to-energy facilities.
Norway, with an economy primarily dependent on oil and gas, is piloting carbon capture, transport and storage from both, with a project called Longship, named after the Norse seafaring vessel.
The Klemestrud incinerator, the biggest in Norway, burns both domestic and imported international household and industrial waste. The heat produced is used for district heating and electricity.
It’s run by Fortum Oslo Varme, a public-private partnership jointly owned by the City of Oslo and Fortum, which operates over 150 power plants globally, including hydro, CHP (combined heat and power), condensing, nuclear, solar and wind. Fortum has an aim to be carbon neutral by 2050.
Energy from waste is often classified as “renewable” because the waste is not sent to landfill where it would emit methane.
But the incinerator produces about 300,000 tonnes of CO2 each year, or 20 per cent of Oslo’s emissions, which need capturing, says Andersen, whose department is responsible for carbon capture projects.
“Oslo has a target of 95 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. It’s not possible to do this without capturing carbon from our waste to energy plant, which currently is the highest single point emitter of carbon dioxide emissions in the city,” he says.
Oslo currently recycles 39 per cent of its waste, compared to world leader Wales, which recycles 69 per cent. This is still more than many cities.
How the plant works
“The carbon capture project started in 2019 and has successfully captured between 90 and 95 per cent of emissions from the plant,” Anderson told the webinar.
The pilot CCS plant uses oil firm Shell‘s CCS technology. The incinerator emits steam and carbon dioxide; dust, nitrogen oxides (NOx) and heavy metals are scrubbed from the flue gas by the company’s technology, which also captures more than 90 per cent of all carbon dioxide emitted.
If the technology was to be used on the whole plant, Shell estimates around 400,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide could be captured every year.
“When we establish a full-scale carbon-capture plant, we can significantly reduce the city’s emissions. We have proved the technology and now it is exportable to other plants all over the world,” Andersen continued. “With 2.5 billion people scheduled to move to cities in the next couple of decades and each of them producing waste, the task is urgent.”
Moon landing technology
Carbon capture and storage is “moon landing technology and we are almost there,” according to Krzysztof Bolesta, the European Commission’s Directorate General for Energy’s
policy officer for economics aspects of retail energy markets regulation, decarbonisation and sustainable energy sources unit.
“We need to do all we can. We hoped to use CCS for coal but it’s not there anymore. We cannot electrify everything, waste is one area where CCS can play a role. Even with meeting recycling objectives, we will still have some waste, so why not use the biogenic component?”
He said that the cost of producing these plants is currently too high for a municipal government to do on its own. “It’s too high for nations to do it on their own, that’s why we need International co-operation in order to bring down the costs.”
Liv Monica Stubholt, chair of the board, Fortum Oslo Varme, also emphasised this point, in a carefully worded appeal to the European Commission, emphasising the cross-border dimension of the issue. “Emissions are cross-border. Finland and Norway are cooperating. It cannot be resolved on a national level, support is needed and joint policies.”
She reminded the Commission that subsidies “happened in solar, it will happen in CCS, to make waste-to-energy more useful. Being a trailblazer is expensive. And waste is normally a municipal responsibility.”
The Greens in the European Parliament, represented by Jakop Dalunde, “support CCS and incineration of waste, with carbon pricing,” he said. “The price of carbon is now 43 Euros but it needs to be almost 100 to finance CCS.”
He felt that investment should be prioritised for CCS, but “taxpayers’ money should be better invested in reducing waste and recycling, which is harder with market-based measures”.
The one area he saw for public control or investment was “the transportation of the captured carbon to storage, whether this is by carbon neutral transport or pipeline.”
Opposition to incinerators
The Fifth Estate raised the issue of opposition to waste incineration to the webinar panel.
UK waste incinerators are three times more likely to be sited in poorer areas, according to Greenpeace’s Unearthed research, and Channel 4’s documentary Dispatches found that millions of tonnes of carefully sorted recycling are being burned in waste-to-energy plants after collection.
How can we avoid such plants simply being a perverse incentive to not be resource efficient by creating a market for waste? And how can we avoid them being dumped on poor neighbourhoods and polluting their air?
On the question of the “perverse incentive”, Stubholt pointed out that “globally, the challenge is to reduce the growth in waste. We have our work cut out for us, and the waste industry is leading the way. Hospital waste, in which we have even more during the pandemic, needs to be incinerated.”
On the second point, Andersen responded that “what we see in Oslo is that a willingness to invest in new technology and a new facility generates green jobs that can benefit the local area. Some opposition does happen,” he admitted, “so careful siting is needed”.
Bolesta thought that “the problem will solve itself due to the objectives of the Circular Economy Action Plan. The locations need to be properly monitored, and that’s a job for environmental monitoring and planning departments.”
This moon landing technology might be coming to a city near you, soon.
David Thorpe is the author of ‘‘One Planet’ Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits and Director of the One Planet Centre Community Interest Company in the UK.