Waste-to-Energy and it’s failure to compete in the Indian context


Waste-to-Energy designs have had a series of failures in India so far – and yet, new plants continue to be commissioned and built. The challenge these have faced often come from the fact that the waste composition in India, as in many developing countries, is simply not suitable for the refused derived fuel plants (RDF) being planned and built. 

After an initial push in the 1990s with a number of high profile failed projects (notably the Delhi’s Timarpur plant) there was a lull in construction and interest for waste-to-energy. However, with the CDM process and the carbon credits that are available interest has again sparked. According to this article there are over 30 planned projects currently, including the a revival of the infamous Timarpur plant. 

Waste-to-Energy does seem like a somewhat magical solution to the waste “problem”, however it has several disadvantages, even not counting the fact that it hasn’t as of yet been proven to work in India. Most notably for us is that it, instead of working in tandem with the waste management systems that has existed for a long period of time displaces waste pickers and the work they do. Operators of RDF plants often actively work against waste pickers – as they sort potentially energy-rich materials from the waste before it reaches the plants. 

The only technology we have seen working so far is small-scale biomethanation, the process where the organics (and not the for waste pickers valuable recyclables) are turned into biogas which can then be used for cooking, lighting or other localized use. Another favorable option is composting – where again only the organic materials are used to create a soil conditioner of great use in Indian farms, where soil is often depleted by heavy use of chemical fertilizer.

Pictured is the Waste-to-Energy facility at Timarpur, New Delhi.