There’s been a surge of interest in renewables in Africa recently. This is great news, but this movement has largely overlooked one option: converting waste into energy.
Waste is a sustainable energy source that has the potential to simultaneously address energy justice, waste management, and health and sanitation issues on the continent. It could both reduce pollution and harness methane gases for energy production, shrinking Africa’s global warming contribution.
Comprehensive research by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center shows that in 2012 alone, energy recovery from collected Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) could have generated 34.1 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity – the equivalent of powering three million households. Although social entrepreneurship initiatives are beginning to explore waste’s energy potential on the continent, however, this resource remains largely untapped.
How Energy-to-Waste Generation Works
Waste generation – the amount of waste produced that can be used for energy purposes – is a function of growth in the population, income and the economy. Managing waste is already an issue on the continent, but with Africa’s population expected to increase from the current 1.1 billion to 4.2 billion at the end of the 21st century, waste management will become an even more pressing concern.
Per capita incomes are also projected to increase to US $1000 by 2025, and economic growth is expected to grow 3% annually until 2025. Thus, both the amount of waste which the continent generates, as well as its waste-to-energy potential, are both set to grow.
In 2012, the continent generated 124,994 103 tones of MSW. In 2025, the continent’s total MSW is expected to grow by 196%, which could generate 173,661 gigawatt hours of electricity – or 13% of the estimated demand for electricity in Africa by 2040.
One Option: Sanitary Landfills
African governments have yet to embrace the considerable potential of energy recovery from waste on the continent. Optimum energy recovery from waste requires adequate MSW collection and management systems, something that’s sorely lacking in many countries.
Given the relatively high costs of waste incineration and biochemical conversions – both popular methods of waste-to-energy generation in the developed world – Sanitary Landfill systems may be a better option for Africa. These systems, which isolate waste until it’s entirely biologically degraded, tend to be a comparatively simpler and cheaper solution.
Taking all the above into account, we should begin to see waste-to-energy renewable options feature more prominently in the debates, options assessments, and renewable energy polices of the 54 countries in the African continent.