Waste? Litter? Garbage? You name it. But it could be energy.
The Global Energy Association continues its series of chats with our winners and experts, who’ve expressed the desire to write relevant chapters for our book on 10 breakthrough ideas for the next 10 years. In this podcast our President Dr Brilev speaks to Dr William Byun about Waste2Energy horizons.

BRILEV: Hello, Dr Byun.

BYUN: Hello

BRILEV: I should explain to our viewers that this is our third consecutive chat with our winners and members of the International Committee regarding the forthcoming book about ten breakthrough ideas for the next ten years. And Mr Byun wants to talk about… Well, you want to talk about the movie called “Back to the future”, but in serious terms it’s about waste-to-energy. So, let me say, first of all, hello, to you in California. I must repeat it on the air, when Russians chat to people in California, we immediately remember the song by Chris de Burgh which is: “Moonlight and vodka, takes me away, Midnight in Moscow is sunshine in L.A. Must be sunshine in California now”.  This is an old song from 1970s,  but I want to touch upon the a movie which was released in 1980s and that’s, of course, “Back in the future” and that’s where scientists turn banana peels, eggshells and other forms of garbage into the fuel. Is it really conceivable?

BYUN: Oh, yes. In fact, the technology itself, various forms of it have been around for maybe several decades. It just hasn’t been as widely implemented or taken up. There’s one thing to consider is that there’s two forms of waste-to-energy. One is incineration, that’s what most people think about, where you put the banana peels or plastics and burn it for electricity and the other one is a traditional landfill, where you just put the garbage into the ground and as it decays biologically or recovered the gas from it. Then that’s called landfill gas.

BRILEV: Why not just recycle it?

BYUN: Recycling is possible. It just is a lot more intensive in terms of maybe getting people or other advanced technologies. It’s not a technological issue is more of a commercial issue, whether there’s enough of a supply chain to put in process, the sorting and the processing, and even shipping to ultimate buyers. If that exists in a country that is possible.

BRILEV: The applying chain of what? Now in that famous movie we have, we do have the banana peels and something like that. I think, it was a coke can or something. What must be in normal circumstances applied to a facility, which recycles or rather produces energy out of waste?

BYUN: If you’re talking about recycling, it’s not so much the supply chain going in, because most conceptions of waste of energy is as you said in the movie you just take everything and burn it and then electricity comes out, so nobody cares what happens afterwards. But if you were to recycle it, then you would need, for example, different companies, who would come to pick up the metal, the location, where the metal could be remelted. If there’s going to be recycling of plastics, the sorting of the plastics, and then sending that to the various users of the plastic.

BRILEV: We have a what’s called the garbage reform in Russia, which was implemented in some regions. Strangely enough, the region of Moscow is already in the reform and the city of Moscow is not there yet. But when they started implementing the reform, it took people several months to actually get used to sorting things in different bins: one bin for the plastic, the other one for the paper, the other one for metal boot. That sorting of garbage help producers of energy out of waste?

BYUN: It will. Not just for recycling but anytime you have, let’s say, a cleaner fuel coming in, it just makes it that much easier. I should point out,  that one of the difficulties of waste-to-energy is when you think of a typical garbage collection from a truck, everything is tossed,  there is everything from maybe a computer part to the banana peel and the more than it’s separated then the less treatment or separation has to be done at the plant itself. So, that would really help.

BRILEV: I must confess, at this time I’m in a very strange place. If I paraphrase and if I try to be invisible writer I should describe this place as a gothic temple with the ruler, who is, of course, my mother-in-law. She leaves several miles of the Moscow circle roads and I actually tried to hide here during the lockdown. The advantage if this place is that woods are nearby, and I’ll reveal the silly little secret to you, I am a paranoid mushroom picker and wild strawberries picker. So, this is my part of the world. That’s said, because of the construction boom or the building boom in this recent years, there are spots, unfortunately, in that forest, my beloved forest, where I can see the garbage, or waste, or litter, whatever you call it, left by the builders after they built all those houses around and, of course,  I hope that there will be one day, when either we the residents or the municipal services would be able to clean that part of the forest. It’s really worries me. Now from where does the discipline of collecting garbage for projects like we’re talking about now come from?

BYUN: If we’re talking about the sorting of the garbage, it’s almost always done at the municipal level and the government level, just because they are authorities, who control the collection and ultimate disposal of the garbage itself. This way, when you talk about commercial waste-to-energy companies, they can’t always rely that there’s going to be pre-sorting, so then they would need to rely more on technologies, that could, for example, burn the garbage at a very high temperature to try to minimise some of the poisons, or let’s say, negative residues that come out from the process.

BRILEV: Then we’ve come to the critical stage of our conversation. People would like to see the environment clean, but garbage processing plants… Let’s go through this way, are not exactly popular with many locals, because they’re afraid of smells, they’re afraid of too many trucks going around, they are, in fact,  afraid of the pollution coming out of this noble enterprise. Should people be afraid? Are there technologies which clearly and really clean?

BYUN:  This is one area were the pushback from people or the people’s perceptions actually shifted the industry. Before you could say, that there were waste-to-energy plants which simply burned the garbage for electricity. But what happened was people’s expectations are somewhat correct. One of the byproducts of that kind of process is that there were a lot of dioxins being created and these are extremely dangerous cancer-causing residues and another one is even from incineration the ash is highly toxic and a lot of times you can’t even dispose the ash, so there has to be special hazardous materials, sites only for the ash from burning the garbage. And because of the pushback from different communities, the technology that has evolved is more toward gasification, where the gas that’s created from the burning is clean significantly and at a much higher temperature, so that even the ash itself and all the dioxins are similarly destroyed. So, in that sense public pressure has resulted in an improvement of the technology.

BRILEV: Okay. Let’s talk about economics. There are calculations out there about how much does it cost to produce the kilowatt of electricity using hydro, solar, wind, coal, oil, gas, you name it… Is the electricity produced by burning the waste cheaper or more expensive?

BYUN: Right now it’s much more expensive partly because the technology still hasn’t hit that threshold, where it’s been widely adapted, widely enough for, let’s say, economies of scale to come in. When you look at waste-to-energy plants still, they tend to be very on and off, in other words, maybe at this particular location for this particular circumstance, because it hasn’t been as widely accepted. There’s a lot more education and civic capacity building that has to take place. All of those add on to the costs and that’s why right now waste of energy is still one of the most expensive technologies among renewable energies.

BRILEV: How much more expensive?

BYUN: As a rule of thumb, I would say double. Double of, let’s say, wind and a lot more than solar, just because solar has gone to the point where it’s crossed that threshold and the price has dropped so much.

BRILEV: And in compare with conventional energy?

BYUN: Yes, it’s still much more expensive.

BRILEV: Much more expensive. So, what’s the way forward, how do you publicize this industry among the people?

BYUN: Well, from a commercial basis there actually is hope for the industry. One, technology is improving and costs are going down gradually, maybe not as steeply as someone, but it is nonetheless materially lower. The second point of waste-to-energy is really different from other renewables, because there’s a wild-card factor and that is what’s known as the tipping fee. Garbage collection is not done as a social enterprise, but is done as a business, so and it’s actually a very profitable business. Municipalities… 

BRILEV: Yes, it is.

BYUN: So, municipalities will often pay a very attractive fee for commercial companies to come and collect the garbage. So, if those companies are the ones who are pushing for waste-to-energy, then suddenly it becomes a very profitable business, because their fuel is not only free but they’re already being paid for the fuel.

BRILEV: So, at this stage, as of today you’ve got to subsidize such plants so far?

BYUN: If you do the plant as stand-alone plant there is still a need for subsidies. However if it’s done by the same entities or related entities in association with companies, who already collect the garbage and nobody disputes that garbage has to be collected then it’s extremely profitable. To give you an idea conservatively looking at companies that already have the fuel, in other words, they’re already being paid to take out the garbage, the returns on those kind of projects is solidly more than 20% and it’s hard to find returns like that in any investment.

BRILEV: Yes, but we are now in very peculiar circumstances. And we are in these circumstances for more than a month now after a dramatic drop in the fossil fuel  prices and of course as we know natural gas depends on oil etc. There’s a whole chain of prices. So, there’s this assumption made by several leading scientists. Well, some of them support this situation and others disapprove, but it doesn’t matter, the objective thing that  the renewables are no longer viable given the price of  the oil, the existing price of oil following the OPEC ++. Yet, in this last week and a half there’ve been a series of publications in very different newspapers, which typically compete rather than agree on things and I’m talking about the Financial Times on the one hand and the Guardian on the other hand and the China daily, believe it or not, on the third hand. Let’s put it this way. And these newspapers claim that, in fact, this dramatic drop in the oil prices could benefit the alternative renewable sector. Now to be honest with you, I’m not here being sympathetic or unsympathetic, I’m talking about the economy now. To be honest with you, what I think, I suspect is that some of the articles reflect not so much the environment friendly approach, rather than a redistribution of taxpayers money, which has been lobbied for, would you agree with that?

BYUN: That’s always a policy aspect and maybe for me I’m in the renewable sector and one of the problems that I’m always a little cautious about is public policy shifts from time to time, especially when there’s an academic downturn. So, looking at it commercially, it’s really something to be a little cautious about, when policy shifts, it could easily go the other way. One thing about the waste-to-energy sector, that I do think is a very stabilizing force is you know whether
the economy is good or bad the reality is, there’s always municipal solid waste being created. You know, 24 hours a day. Whatever happens and there’s always the need to dispose of that waste. And in many, in many countries, especially, in East Asia, one of the problems is there’s a lack of places to dispose of the garbage. So, in other words there’s a real problem of disposal and at the end of the day those routes are shutting down. Before some countries were able to ship their garbage to other countries: Singapore was able to ship it to Indonesia, the US had been sending it to China or Malaysia, as those places shut down, then it becomes even more of a pressing problem. What are you going to do with that waste or in this case instead of calling it waste we’ll just call it fuel. So, I would say the waste-to-energy sector is a lot more stable than maybe some of the other renewables.

BRILEV: Okay, we are now in 2020. We have this dramatic change in the energy sector, we’ve just mentioned subsidies and not so much subsidies. Well, we talked about this business could being viable under certain conditions. Why is that, that you want to write a chapter on the waste-to-energy for the new book? Why are you so sure about the perspective?

BYUN:  When we talk about ten years in the future, on the one hand, it seems like a long time but on the other it’s actually quite short. And  the ones that’ll make it into the book in a 10 year period will be technologies that already… technology pipelines that already exist. And in other words, that has been accepted by society as a viable means. Maybe there already are the supply chains and even economics of how it’ll be used in place. So, in 2021 waste-to-energy could be one of those sectors, that’s moving, let’s say, pretty solidly and already I could see, that even in the situation with the pandemic going on, there are still queries and there are still projects moving forward, specifically with respect to waste-to-energy, whereas some of the other renewables have been put on hold.

BRILEV: Good. I actually said 2021 immediately, although we are still in 2020.  But from what you are saying I understand that you actually think that there are may be an interesting development in just a year?

BYUN: I think so and some of the concerns that have been rather surprised to me was I’ve received some queries from local governments on what to do with respect to waste treatment of medical waste. I think that’s something that maybe has gone into policymakers minds a lot more, when all this discussion is about what to do with the pandemic and the supplies, and then the natural next step from that, is what are we going to do with the medical waste. And then there’s been queries rising up about are there projects that we could do to specifically treat medical waste.

BRILEV: Oh, very interesting. What kind of waste are we talking about here? What kind of waste could produce a lot of electricity? Medical waste?

BYUN: Medical waste is a separate category and it in itself is not a lot, but it’s hazardous enough in others, anything that you could imagine coming out of a hospital or medical facility, usually for that you would want to incinerate it and at as high temperature as possible. So, in this case, even though the sector itself is very small, the medical waste sector, because it’s focusing, let’s say, the public, the hospital’s policymakers, I’m looking at waste-to-energy generally, then it’s also, something that’s moving the market along, as a whole the waste-to-energy market.

BRILEV: Okay, as you’ve noticed I haven’t got very much into details, because I don’t want to reveal what we’re going to be publishing, I hope,  shortly sooner or later. Let me ask you very last and rather philosophical question, because of all the problems, that we are having on this planet now: the disease the coronavirus, the drop in the oil prices… All of this maybe, just maybe, it’s time to look at the concept of sustainable development from a bit different angle, because sustainable development is about the environment and that’s the back of paramount importance, but it’s also about creating jobs and keeping jobs. We are now speaking at the time, when all over the world people are talking about rising unemployment and other social challenges. Can we given the circumstances reach a situation, where we could be talking in a goodwill and  you know incentive manner about a proper balance of different sources of energy?

BYUN: I would think that it’s difficult to force a balance from the outside, but it has to be something that arose organically and focusing on the waste-to-energy sector some more. There are different drivers. Most of my work is done in Asia and there are different drivers in Asia as opposed to a lot of the developed countries. In developed countries a lot of renewables, which the energy comes from things related to environmental considerations. Whereas in Asia a lot of the drivers are purely economic, in other words, it’s just expensive to landfill, it’s an expensive to find suitable locations and dispose of it, so it’s always been an economic issue first. And it may be even more so with the pandemic. In terms of the job market, the renewable sector is also great for generating more jobs in emerging markets, just because it tends to be very localized and you have scattered communities. For example, I have to work in the Philippines in Indonesia. There’s tens of thousands of islands scattered and it’s hard to put any kind of comprehensive transmission grid. So, there will be more need for localized energy, such as renewables. And frankly this pandemic will push, I believe, more of an impetus toward waste-to- energy considerations, just because people are more aware of the need for sanitary conditions health. Those are going to be more in the forefront and in that respect what are people gonna do with the waste, how can that be done in a safe and environmentally friendly manner, because it’ll come back to affect the living circumstances that they are in. So, overall, I think, it’s coincides or dovetails very well with the push for renewables, waste-to-energy and what’s happening in the world post COVID-19.

BRILEV: Well, I’m supposed to be very impartial here and I will be that, but I have a feeling that this is our first, but not last conversation about all of this. With your permission next week, I hope, I’ll be talking to Professor Alekseenko, here in Russia, who also specialises in renewables. And the matter, we’ve been talking about here I think it’s worth exploring more and more. But we’re not revealing a lot of tactical details, so we’ll carry on with the project. Dr Byun, thank you so much, indeed.

BYUN: Thank you, Sergey.

BRILEV: And be careful with the pandemic.

BYUN: Yes, I’m well.


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