A waste treatment/electricity generating plant in Singapore.
A waste treatment/electricity generating plant in Singapore. Photo by Bloomberg
Text size
Green power infographic
Waste-to-energy sites in Israel.

A political island in the energy-rich Middle East, Israel has long feared for its energy security. That's part of the reason the discovery of offshore natural gas fields caused such excitement, in addition to the Leviathan prospect's being the largest discovery in the world for a decade. But Israel's real energy leviathan could be buried underground, in the country's landfills.

In a few weeks' time the finance and environmental protection ministries are due to select one of three potential sites for a waste disposal plant to serve the cities of the Dan region for years to come. The facility, which is expected to cost hundreds of millions of shekels, will be built by a private company with government assistance.

The plant will have a planned capacity of 1,000 tons of organic waste a day, 30% of the waste generated in greater Tel Aviv. As an added bonus the tender winner will have the option of using the waste to generate electricity, which it can sell. With a projected output of 10 megawatts this won't solve Israel's energy crisis, but the extra income for the facility's operator will go toward cutting the cost of waste management.

This month the Environmental Protection Ministry issued a call for proposals to build electricity-generating waste treatment plants. The ministry is allocating NIS 70 million total to the project and will cover up to 40% of construction or expansion costs, the latter for retrofitting existing facilities.

The plants will employ anaerobic decomposition to produce methane gas, a close relative of the natural gas in Israel's offshore reserves. The latter was produced by bacteria millions of years ago, and in both cases the gas can be used to generate electricity.

Currently Israel's organic waste is buried in landfills where it decomposes anaerobically naturally, generating 50% carbon dioxide and 50% methane. Both are greenhouse gases, contributing to global warming; methane is 20 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. Controlling the decomposition process and harnessing the resultant gases in a combined waste treatment and power generating plant also reduces the environmental damage caused by the gases, as well as the potential fire hazard. Pipes transport the methane for burning or electricity production. The plants can continue generating gas even 15 to 20 years after they are closed to new waste shipments.

Held up by red tape

Israel currently generates 4.8 million tons of trash annually, and this amount is growing by 3%-5% a year. There are six waste treatment plants that generate electricity, for a total of 7 megawatts. This output could be increased substantially but for bureaucratic and statutory obstacles. These led Dor Alon subsidiary Dorgas to cancel its winning bid to build a facility in Abu Dis, near Jerusalem, and were also behind delays in the construction of a 7MW plant west of Be'er Sheva.

Three of Israel's largest companies are involved in the latter project, and have already installed an elaborate network of pipelines at the site. They have also purchased five turbines for generating electricity, at a cost of 5 million euros, and have obtained a permit from the Israel Electric Corporation to sell electricity they produce. But no electricity is being produced there yet.

The holdup apparently lies in the Israel Land Administration's demand for NIS 7.5 million in capitalization fees, which would make the entire project unprofitable. In the meantime the gas being produced at the site is being burned off instead of supplying electricity to 10,000 households.

Land usage fees are the main impediment to building generating capacity in waste treatment plants. It is one reason for the lackluster response to the ministry's initiative, especially in central Israel where such fees are very high, and for the resultant government intervention and offers of incentives.

Waste reduction

Pumping gas from landfills is not the ultimate solution to organic waste disposal, since the sites are eyesores, environmental hazards and occupy valuable land. Steps are already being taken to limit dumping, as sites fill up. Opening a new waste site requires long-term planning that takes into consideration other options for land use. Dumps are also financially wasteful, with an estimated NIS 875 million in raw materials being buried instead of reused. Proper handling of waste could reduce Israel's dependence on imported raw materials and also create thousands of jobs. A novel approach to waste handling is clearly necessary.

The Environmental Protection Ministry believes the solution is to handle waste before it is buried. Organic waste, which makes up 40% of the total, could be composted into fertilizer, but that means sorting it out from the rest, at the household level, into separate collection bins. The ministry has budgeted for this in 31 municipalities and has upgraded handling facilities. Part of the cost is recovered through fees on dumping, which will soon reach NIS 100 per ton.

A large anerobic decomposition plant could obviate the need for new landfills. Several private companies are awaiting approval to build such facilities, the high cost of which has made government aid a necessity. financial assistance. It costs NIS 60 million-NIS 70 million to build a waste treatment plant producing 1MW-2MW. The IEC gives developers financial incentives, but much less than for solar-powered generating plants despite the fact that generating electricity from waste is not weather dependent.

In a 1MW capacity plant one ton of waste can generate 240 kilowatt-hours, yielding NIS 156 per ton of waste (at NIS 0.65 per kilowatt-hour), which gives only a marginal profit. The IEC refuses to raise the rate, which does not include the cost of waste treatment, claiming that electricity consumers should not subsidize waste treatment.