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Waste to fuel the future

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Energy Global,

Patrick Clerens, ESWET, Belgium, considers a sustainable approach to waste management and energy generation.

In March 2023, the Brussels-based trade association representing the European Suppliers of Waste-to-Energy Technology (ESWET), published a comprehensive report titled Recovering the Non-Recyclable: From Waste-to-Energy to Integrated Resource-Recovery facility.1 The primary objective of this report was to highlight how integrating innovative technologies into existing waste-to-energy (WtE) plants can lead to additional environmental and climate benefits. With the support and contributions of ESWET members, the report presents a new concept for the future of non-recyclable waste management.

The integrated resource-recovery facility

The Integrated Resource-Recovery Facility (IRF) represents a paradigm shift in waste thermal treatment and serves as a holistic project already introduced by the association in its 2050 Vision.2 The IRF goes beyond merely treating non-recyclable waste; it also focuses on generating partly renewable energy – including heat, electricity, and fuels, safeguarding energy security in Europe, and playing a pivotal role in climate change mitigation efforts through landfill diversion, resource recovery, and the integration of carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS) technologies.

Renewable energy output, energy security, and baseload power

WtE plants play a vital role in the circular economy and the renewable energy sector. These plants recover energy in the form of steam, electricity, or hot water, acting as a bridge between waste management and renewable energy generation. As a significant portion of the waste treated in WtE plants is of biogenic nature, it is recognised as a renewable source of energy. Studies estimate that more than 50% of the energy output from WtE plants is renewable,3 making a substantial contribution to substituting fossil fuels in various sectors, including electricity, district heating, industrial steam supply, and transportation.

According to calculations made by CEWEP – the Confederation of European WtE Plants – in 2019, WtE plants in Europe produced 43 billion KWh of electricity, providing power to approximately 20 million citizens.4 Moreover, the primary energy produced by WtE in the same year was equivalent to 13.8 billion m3 of natural gas.5 This corresponds approximately to 9% of the natural gas imports to the EU from Russia (155 billion m3 in 2021).6

Energy generated from non-recyclable waste offers several advantages, including energy security and baseload power. Unlike other renewable energy sources like wind or solar, WtE plants provide a consistent and reliable energy supply that is not subject to price fluctuations of fuels, such as gas, and is less vulnerable to relative supply problems. This stability makes waste-derived energy financially reliable and reduces Europe’s dependence on fossil fuel imports. The integration of WtE with renewable and low-carbon technologies further enhances energy security and contributes to the energy transition.

Cogeneration and energy efficiency

WtE plants often employ cogeneration, also known as combined heat and power (CHP), to maximise energy efficiency. By utilising the waste heat generated during the incineration process, WtE plants can achieve high energy efficiencies, surpassing conventional power generation technologies. The recovered heat can be utilised in district heating networks, heating and cooling buildings, offices, hospitals, and industrial processes, further reducing the reliance on fossil fuels and increasing energy sustainability.

According to CEWEP, 60% of WtE plants function as combined heat and power plants, contributing approximately 10% of the energy supplied to European district heating and cooling networks, and supplying 99 billion KWh of heat to almost 17 million Europeans annually.4

The combination of district heating and cooling networks with WtE is a perfect match, allowing for the utilisation of waste heat throughout the year in both cold and warm climates. This approach is not only energy efficient but also enhances the EU’s energy security. Additionally, this combination leads to significant carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions savings. The Torino district heating system in Italy serves as a prime example, consisting of 6800 km of dual piping and powered by three modern and ef-ficient combined heat and power plants. This system efficiently covers the heating needs of over 640 000 residents, with Torino’s WtE plant feeding the grid with 136 935 MWh of thermal energy in 2022,7 by processing 565 000 tpy of non-recyclable waste. As a result, the city of Torino achieves a reduction of 500 000 t of CO2 emissions through the utilisation of the district heating system.8

Waste-to-hydrogen and waste-to-fuel

WtE technologies have proven to be versatile and advantageous in the European energy mix. In addition to producing heat and electricity, WtE processes can also generate waste-to-hydrogen (WtH) and waste-to-fuel (WtF). These technologies contribute to climate objectives by providing renewable and low-carbon hydrogen and fuels, which are crucial for energy-intensive industries and transportation.

WtH can be achieved through the combination of combustion-based WtE plants with electrolysis or through certain gasification processes. WtF involves producing synthetic fuels, such as methane, methanol, and ethanol, through the hydrogenation of carbon dioxide. These fuels contribute to carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) efforts.

Renewable and low-carbon hydrogen and fuels derived from waste play a significant role in decarbonising Europe and reducing land competition between energy and food crops. Converting municipal solid waste to biofuels can result in substantial greenhouse gas (GHG) savings.9 WtH and WtF technologies have been successfully demonstrated in various projects, such as the WtE plant in Wuppertal, Germany, which generates hydrogen to power public transport buses, reducing CO2 emissions.10

Methane and methanol produced from WtH can be used as alternative fuels in transportation, contributing to decarbonisation efforts. For instance, the waste-to-methane project in Dietikon, Switzerland, produces synthetic gas for heating, cooking, and refuelling vehicles with compressed natural gas (CNG) engines, significantly reducing CO2 emissions.11


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