Africa has a massive source of untapped power, and that’s in its trash.
A new report from EU’s Joint Research Center says the continent could generate 20% of its electricity requirement just by burning its refuse. If handled correctly, waste could generate power for 40 million homes by 2025. But even if left as it is, waste could still provide enough power for 27 million homes, says the study.
Wealthy countries burn a lot of trash because they don’t like burying it in landfills. They also have comparatively strict emissions laws, which means that they don’t just toss old car tires onto a pyre and use the heat to make electricity.
Yet worldwide, nations still bury most of their waste. Apart from the obvious environmental downsides (it’s a dump, full of trash and chemicals), landfills generate lots of methane and carbon dioxide—both greenhouse gases. Instead of just venting these gases to the atmosphere, however, these gases can be captured and burned for energy.
Currently, most recovered waste in Africa comes from cities. Rural areas need to be targeted, which is difficult due to a lack of waste-collection infrastructure, poorly enforced laws, and little environmental awareness:
Most of the MSW [Municipal Solid Waste] in Africa is burned on site or deposited in open dumps or semi-controlled landfills with no groundwater protection, leachate recovery, or treatment systems and usually without soil cover. Waste dumps are located on the edges of urban areas, sometimes in ecologically sensitive areas with potentially negative impacts on water sources
The benefits of generating power instead of pollution from the trash are obvious. First, electricity is needed not only for households, but to increase efficiency in agriculture and industry. It is also essential for hospitals and schools. Currently Africa consumes only a third of the global per-capita energy average. This might be, in large part, because of a reliance on diesel generators. Small internal combustion engines that run on landfill gas, says the study, are ideal replacements.
Waste generation is concentrated in urban areas, so it’s easy to add power to the grid, but there is also potential for standalone grids to be set up at a local level, giving reliable, independent power to rural areas. This would be an improvement on individual generators.
It’ll take a while, but one of the advantages of landfill gas harvesting is that it is a long-term game. That headline figure of 20% of power coming from waste generation is based on urban waste collection. If more and more rural areas are added to the system, the potential figure is much higher.