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Spotlight on Landfill Gas Energy: Eye on China and India

Andrew Mourant, freelance journalist

Andrew Mourant, contributing writer for Renewable Energy Focus magazine, continues his "mini-series" on LFG site management and engineering.

Two great countries: two enormous polluters. China and India have vast populations; booming economies; and produce mind-boggling quantities of waste. The potential for converting landfill gas to energy would seem to be enormous.

The damaging impact of coal-fired power stations and urban smog has long plagued China. These are, perhaps, lower profile problems in India though nonetheless real. Yet Chinese efforts to tackle the ruinous impact of air pollution are also making the world take notice. It’s far ahead of its Asian neighbour in converting refuse tip methane gas into electricity.

Given that the technology of extracting methane gas is uncomplicated, and that India has around 5,500 polluting major landfills, this would seem to be an opportunity lost. But many sites have been poorly controlled; their history unknown. Several locally run pilot methane gas to energy projects have failed to bring about any step-change.

In China, with around 5,000 landfill sites, a lead has been taken by French environmental services company Veolia, a partner in China’s first landfill-gas-to-energy (LFG) plant, Guangzhou Guang Jia.  Construction was completed in June 1999 with power generation from the gas extracted beginning just one month later.

Veolia is involved in seven LFG to energy plants, including Shanghai Laogang, one of Asia’s largest, which started to produce electricity in July 2008. This was established by Shanghai Environment Group Co. Ltd. and Bloom Country Limited (BCL). The latter is a Hong Kong entity wholly owned by Veolia, which designed, built and operates the site on a 25-year contract.

Shanghai Laogang, with eleven sets of gas engines, produced almost 24,400 MWh of electricity in 2012 alone. Since its inception, the plant has treated around 58 million cubic meters of landfill gas, generating 73,000 MWh. This, by any standards, is big scale. 

How do things work when East meets West in such a way? Zhou Xiaohau, general manager for Veolia in China, is a seasoned operator and a veteran at dealing with bureaucracy. It can still be a problem, despite China’s spectacular economic transformation.  “It was in 1998 that doors began opening,” he explained.  “Before, everything had to be operated through local government; we needed to explain the advantages of the PPP (private-public partnership) model and bringing in better technology. It was a very interesting and long road”.

Veolia still works closely with municipal and central governments. The future, though, for major LFG to energy projects is far from assured in China. “We have very detailed plans to develop, but there are problems, Zhou told REF. “One is that it’s difficult to find land for landfill.”

This may come as a surprise in so populous a country, whose five-year plan includes a further drive towards pushing millions into already sprawling cities. But therein lies the problem – new sites are hard to find because of urbanisation and the distance of suitable land from residential areas. “The Chinese haven’t been focusing on landfill – if they can avoid it, they will,” Zhou explains. 

The five-year plan has a strong emphasis on incineration. Priorities are less about power generation and more about controlling poison and toxic emissions, Zhou adds. “Some sites are a challenge – they produce more leachate where it’s humid, and you need to pump them out weekly or else the well won’t produce gas.” 

China has had successes with pollution control, notably its Nanjing Shui-Ge LFG project. The plant, generating power since 2002, and with capacity of more than 4,050 kW, is regarded as a model operation, the only one of its kind in China to be designated by UNDP and SEPA as a National Environmental Protection Demonstration Project.

As a business proposition, LFG energy plans in China must stand on their merits – the price per KWh is the same as that produced by coal and all other means. “We’re in competition with everybody,” Zhou stated. Last year Veoila produced 275,000 MW from its seven operations. The company is, however, unspecific about its next moves, declining to reveal its level of investment to date. Zhou would also say:  “We’re continuing to look at the Chinese market. There’s a lot of opportunity, but no big landfill sites.”

The scope and ambition of Shanghai Laogong only emphasises how far India lags behind — landfill gas makes a negligible contribution to the Indian national grid. Yet the environmental case for capturing methane gas is overwhelming.

In so vast and chaotic a country, the scale of the problem is hard to assess. However, scientists have done their best to work out implications for pollution and the worldwide greenhouse gas crisis. They’ve calculated that in 1997 India released around seven million tonnes of methane into the atmosphere, and that this could reach 39 million tonnes by 2047 under a ‘business-as-usual scenario’.

In urban areas, most municipal solid waste (MSW) is deposited, unsorted, in uncontrolled open sites. The rest is dumped illegally or left to decompose either in streets and drains, or in unmanaged tips — around 50% is biodegradable, researchers say.

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