The Economic Viability of Waste-To-Energy Plants in Bengaluru, India

The yellow entrance of a waste processing plant surrounded by trees with a sign that says: "no entry inside the plant without prior permission"
Citizen Matters
Bengaluru, India
The Economic Viability of Waste-To-Energy Plants in Bengaluru, India

In 2017, French firm 3Wayste submitted a proposal to the government of Karnataka and Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), an agency responsible for civic amenities, to implement an integrated municipal solid waste management project at Chikkanagamangala. Using the company’s proprietary, patented waste-to-energy technology, the plant would generate electricity from processing municipal solid waste—i.e., refuse-derived fuel—and the existing municipal solid waste-processing plant to an incineration-based waste-to-energy plant.  

It was proposed that the plant would process 500 tons of mixed waste—300 tons supplied by the BBMP and 200 tons from other sources. 3Wayste also proposed processing refuse-derived fuel to generate 9.2 megawatts of power.  

After 3Wayste received the required departmental clearances, the government of Karnataka issued an order on March 8, 2018, to put the plan in motion to convert their municipal solid waste plant into a waste-to-energy plant. However, the process was embroiled in conflict as residents in Electronic City—where the plant was located—protested against “misguided attempts at scientific waste management.” 

The 15.3-acre plant is located in close proximity to the Chikkanagamangala lake, which serves as a common drinking water source for the residents. Pic: Namrata Narendra
The 15.3-acre plant is located in close proximity to the Chikkanagamangala lake, which serves as a common drinking water source for the residents / Credit: Namrata Narendra.

“Before the plant was set up, the government made a lot of promises that the plant would use technology that would prevent the stench from emanating but none of them have materialized,” says Venkatesh Guru, a resident from Chikkanagamangala. 

Leachate has to be disposed of properly through rajakaluves—or stormwater drains—but residents say it’s been disposed of at the Chikkanagamangala Lake which is located a kilometer away from the plant.

“The lake is completely polluted now. We keep protesting, but they find ways of using the local police to intimidate and shut us up,” says Venkatesh Guru. The residents do not believe the waste-to-energy plant will benefit them in any way, he adds.

Despite 3Wayste saying in its initial proposal that it would “implement a state-of-the-art odor and dust control system” and ensure that the BBMP would transport waste in covered trucks, resistance from local communities remains. The plant would also require a license from the Pollution Control Board due to the smell it would emanate.

Residents of Electronic City protest against a polluting solid waste processing unit run by BBMP, in December 2018. This plant will soon be replaced by a Waste-to-Energy unit, which, residents believe, will make things worse. Pic: E-City Rising/File pic
Residents of Electronic City protest against a polluting solid waste processing unit run by BBMP, in December 2018. This plant will soon be replaced by a waste-to-energy unit, which, residents believe, will make things worse / Credit: File photo via E-City Rising.

In November 2020, the state Urban Development Department withdrew the consent issued because the company failed to deliver on its promises. “The company was asking for too many concessions. Also, over the last one-and-a-half years, the firm did not show interest in establishing the plant,” the report quoted Sarfaraz Khan, the then-joint commissioner of the Solid Waste Management Division of BBMP. 

Budgetary push and Western rationale

Domestic waste contains hydrocarbons that “can be converted into electricity using thermoelectric and anaerobic digestion plants” through a combustion process that produces pollutants as well as green gases, according to Science Direct in 2021. It argues that converting waste to watts, energy and value-added chemicals is “the way forward for long-term sustainability.”

The paper refers to the United States Energy Policy embracing waste-to-energy technology and endorsing it as a renewable process to generate energy while also meeting Net Zero targets. According to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2021, 28 million tons of combustible municipal solid waste were burnt to produce 13.6 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. 

India’s own Net Zero plans are equally—if not more—ambitious. As per the revised Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) that reaffirms the country’s commitment to the 2015 Paris Agreement, India has ambitiously voiced its long-term plan of reaching net zero by 2070.

Jumping on the waste-to-energy bandwagon and eager to devise technocratic solutions to the country’s waste generation and disposal problems, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy’s website says that the total estimated energy generation potential from urban and industrial organic waste in India can amount to approximately 5,690 megawatts.

In addition, early last year, as part of Swachh Bharat Mission 2.0, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the scientific processing of waste through waste-to-energy plants, which, along with other methods received a budgetary impetus of Rs.1,765 crore.

The solution of waste-to-energy plants to address Bengaluru’s waste management problem—and increase renewable energy production in the city—trickled down to the level of the urban local bodies by 2020 when the municipal authority kicked off the installation of five (six, as of 2022) waste-to-energy plants around the city, based on a public-private partnership model. 

The Hindu quotes the then-law and parliamentary affairs minister, J C Madhuswamy, apprising the legislative assembly of how these plants would be crucial in facilitating the scientific disposal of solid waste. He was quoted saying that the plants would begin generating power after two years. The first plant costing Rs.260 crore, which came up in Ramanagara’s Bidadi, will have the capacity to process 600 metric tons of waste daily and generate 11.5 kilowatts of power. 

While this seems good on paper, it is a challenging feat to achieve especially in South Asian countries where the composition of waste is different. In a 2019 article in Citizen Matters, author Deepu Chandran states that waste-to-energy plants require waste with high calorific value and low moisture content to generate electricity. This means only non-biodegradable, non-recyclable waste is preferred, unlike the mixed waste in India sent to these plants. 

“One of the major challenges is waste segregation—the feedstock or the waste that has to be fed into the technology has to be in the right form,” says Dr. Suresh NS, a research scientist at the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy . In the context of Bengaluru and other major cities, segregation isn’t happening at the source (by citizens in households) and neither is segregated waste being fed into the plants as it should be, claim the experts.

Waste collection in Bengaluru

“Waste-to-energy conversion processes have the potential to reduce 160 million tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions (and) is expected to cater to 2% of electricity by 2030,” according to a Science Direct article detailing the conversion of waste to energy for a sustainable future. This sounds promising but may prove to be a tall order, especially for a country like India with a differential composition of waste and the lack of an efficient source or ward-level segregation mechanism. 

Author BP Naveen, in his 2021 comprehensive review of the waste management nexus in Bengaluru, admits that the city “doesn’t have any logical treatment strategy facilities for solid waste."

Author BP Naveen spatially locates the unauthorised (illegal or unapproved) dump sites in and around the city boundaries. Pic: Naveen BP/Science Direct
Author BP Naveen spatially locates the unauthorized (illegal or unapproved) dump sites in and around the city boundaries / Credit: Naveen BP via Science Direct.

As per the current handling of waste disposal, BBMP oversees 30% of municipal solid waste and administers 70% of the municipal solid waste action, Naveen says. The waste per every 1,000 households is first collected on wheelbarrows or auto tippers to a collection point and then transported to landfills or waste treatment centers via lorries or compactors.

“Once the waste has been collected and transported, it still must be segregated. Biodegradables and plastic fractions can be utilized for converting it into useful products such as composting, bio methanation (biogas production), liquid fuels, and refuse-derived fuel for heat and power generation,” Naveen says, reiterating that segregation remains a primary challenge. 

Pushkara SV, a senior consultant at Indian Institute for Human Settlements, agrees. “Only non-recyclable dry waste/refuse-derived fuel fraction of the waste should be sent to these waste-to-energy plants. Organic waste has to be sent to composting or bio-methanation plants, eight of which are operated in the city by BBMP, the corporation’s solid waste management officials say. Across the state, 139 megawatt biomass projects have been installed as of December 2021. Waste consisting of organic material generally has more moisture and less calorific value and hence should not be sent to waste to energy projects for them to operate efficiently.”

Plenty of challenges

Despite these challenges, data obtained by Citizen Mattersfrom the office of Rakesh Singh, additional chief secretary of the state Urban Development Department—reveals that as of October 6, 2022, six plants are in the works in Bengaluru. With a lease period ranging from 20-30 years, the plants can process mixed and wet waste and produce refuse-derived fuel that can generate anywhere between 2-14 megawatts.

The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has mentioned that 216 waste-to-energy plants have been set up across the country with an aggregate capacity of 370.45 megawatt equivalent. Karnataka has 11 waste-to-energy plants with an installed capacity of 14.6 megawatts.

Author BP Naveen spatially locates the unauthorised (illegal or unapproved) dump sites in and around the city boundaries. Pic: Naveen BP/Science Direct
With the dots signifying the volume of waste, here are the locations of the waste-to-energy plants in association with the BBMP, as per data obtained from the office of Rakesh Singh, additional chief secretary of the Urban Development Department / Credit: Anusha Bellapu.

But in Bengaluru, none of the waste-to-energy plants are currently operational.

“There were companies who came forward to spearhead the installation and while they were in various stages of progress, none of them have materialized yet,” says a senior official from the Solid Waste Management division, BBMP, on condition of anonymity.

To elaborate, he says “the companies would enter into Memorandums of Understanding, but then demand the revision of power purchase agreements, hence stalling or thwarting the operationalization of these plants.”

Sometimes, he mentions, the companies pull out because they haven’t found the right investors or sometimes the deals go sour because they ask for tipping fees which they would charge to BBMP. “We have to protect the BBMP’s interests as well,” the official states. Citizen Matters reached out to Satarem—whose plant is proposed to come up in Kannehalli—and 3Wayste for comment but did not receive a response.

An attractive form of renewable energy?

A notification by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, dated December 2022, states that India’s total installed capacity of non-fossil sources is 172.72 gigawatts. However, Binit Kumar Das, deputy program manager of renewable energy at the Center for Science and Environment, points out that the 2030 targets don’t clarify the electricity generation specifically from non-fossil fuels.

“Karnataka is in fourth position when it comes to renewable energy, we have 16 gigawatts of installed capacity,” says the managing director of Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Limited (KREDL), KP Rudrappiah. As per the Karnataka Renewable Energy Policy 2022-2027, he says the state has committed to adding 10 gigawatts more during the policy period and hopes this will increase to 20 gigawatts by 2030. 

Karnataka’s installed capacity of renewable energy is 16 GW, says MD of KREDL KP Rudrappiah / Credit: KREDL/Twitter.
Karnataka’s installed capacity of renewable energy is 16 gigawatts, says KP Rudrappiah / Credit: KREDL via Twitter.

The impetus for renewable energy is clear when one considers that electricity tariffs were revised three times in 2020 alone, as Citizen Matters reported. The Karnataka Electricity Regulatory Commission, which is responsible for setting the tariffs, attributed these revisions to “the steep increase in coal prices” due to “an increase in the variable cost of thermal stations.”

In a notification dated 2016, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change publicized the Solid Waste Management Rules (2016) and said that the Ministry of Power through appropriate mechanisms shall “decide tariff or charges for the power generated from the waste to energy plants based on solid waste.”

The rules also mention the explicit or compulsory purchase of power generated from such plants by distribution companies. Further, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy Sources is tasked with creating infrastructure that will facilitate the plants and provide them with appropriate subsidies or incentives. Officials at KPTCL were unavailable for comment.

According to Rudrappiah, the government of Karnataka’s New Industrial Policy 2020-25 outlines the kind of incentives that KREDL offers for the installation of these plants. “We do not provide capital subsidies, but offer waivers on concession fees, etc.,” he says, to enable the development of waste-to-energy plants.

However, the situation on the ground is more complex. 

“While Karnataka Power Transmission Corporation Ltd (KPTCL) buys power from the plants, the BBMP is expected to oversee the end-to-end operations like transportation of waste, segregation, etc.,” says Pushkara. The shortfalls of operational costs incurred in power generation through waste also have to be absorbed by the BBMP, he adds.

According to Atin Biswas, the program director of the Municipal Solid Waste Unit at the Centre for Science and Environment, this makes the plants economically unviable. “When the plants are contracted to private entities, the municipal corporation is tasked with funding the collection and transportation of waste as well as providing tipping fees for plant operators.”

“Unlike in developed countries, the Indian urban local bodies are failing to dedicate adequate funding for waste processing. The waste processing plants generate little revenue but they should not be expected to make profits,” Pushkara points out. Yet in his view, the BBMP is hoping that these waste-to-energy plants will generate some revenue. He says the plants can only generate approximately 25-35% of the operating costs, depending on the scale of operations. According to him, the shortfalls should be paid out by the urban local bodies.

For now, and for the foreseeable future, it appears that energy generated from these plants will be more expensive than other forms of renewable energy. 

Questions on economic viability

In terms of the power purchase agreements between the companies and the plants, “the cost (of energy purchase) for wind or solar is close to Rs.2-4/kilowatt-hour, which is similar to the rate of power purchased from coal power plants (Rs.2-3/kilowatt-hour). But for waste to energy, the cost of power generation is higher which is Rs.6-8/kilowatt-hour,” says Suresh.  

KREDL confirms that the tariff at which power is being supplied from the plants is Rs.7.1/kilowatt-hour, while that of solar is lesser by Rs.5. “This is due to the high capital cost, high operating and maintenance costs, low calorific value and additional fuel required to burn the waste,” explains Binit.

Solar and wind remain the front runners in Karnataka’s Renewable energy generation / Credit: Shruti Morabad, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons.
Solar and wind remain the front runners in Karnataka’s renewable energy generation / Credit: Shruti Morabad via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Unlike coal power plants, Suresh claims, waste-to-energy plants cannot be boosted to a large scale. “They can be replicated to a few megawatt plants at a maximum, but more than that is not feasible, especially given feedstock availability,” he says. The availability of input or feedstock when it comes to these plants would be a challenge and other sources like solar and wind do not have this problem. Because the capacity of the plants is limited, the cost of energy generation is higher, Suresh clarifies. 

According to Binit, while the installed capacity of renewable energy sources across India is 168 gigawatts, waste to energy’s share is only 250 megawatts. 

“While there are waste-to-energy projects in the pipeline, (energy generated) from them is minimal compared to solar and wind sources, and hence we are not dependent on them for meeting our (renewable energy) targets,” says KP Rudrappiah.

Still, Binit maintains “We need to understand that despite its small contribution, waste-to-energy plants are required in a well-designed energy mix.” Although solar and wind power are major contributors, there are resources that the waste-to-energy plants can tap into to realize their potential, he adds.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published by Citizen Matters on March 13, 2023, and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: The BBMP municipal waste processing plant in Chikkanagamangala, near Electronic City. The blue board says "no entry inside the plant without prior permission" / Credit: Namrata Narendra.

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