Thermal waste‑to‑energy is the process of converting rubbish into electricity, typically through direct combustion. It promises to reduce emissions by killing two birds with one stone – diverting waste from landfill and offsetting high emissions electricity generated in the grid.
Several large waste‑to‑energy projects have been supported recently, partially based on their promised emissions reductions.
Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Frontier Economics recently investigated the potential emissions from thermal waste‑to‑energy, looking closely at two recently approved projects in Western Australia and Victoria. We found that the analysis of thermal waste‑to‑energy emissions often depends on three faulty assumptions:
- That waste‑to‑energy will forever offset electricity produced by the highest emissions alternative – either black or brown coal
- That the alternative to thermal waste‑to‑energy is to dispose waste in a landfill with poor gas capture and zero energy recovery
- That the composition of waste won’t change over time, despite plans for widespread introduction of green waste diversion.
These assumptions aren’t true today, and will become even less accurate over time.
We found that thermal waste-to-energy risks locking in unnecessarily high emissions for the long‑term despite changes in the electricity and waste sectors that should make emissions reductions possible. Well intentioned policy, supported by faulty analysis, can easily lead to poor environmental outcomes.
For an overview and to see the key findings, read our bulletin: Emissions from landfill and thermal waste-to-energy.
Read the full report: Assessing emissions from waste to energy.