As the growing Southeast Asian population generates more and more garbage, the use of that waste as an energy source is progressing, with Japanese companies and their incineration know-how leading the way.
A waste incineration plant in southwestern Singapore’s Tuas district can process about 35% of the garbage that the city-state generates daily. About 500 to 600 garbage trucks carry in waste around the clock to the plant, whose power production capacity reaches 120 megawatts.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries announced in 2022 that it had purchased all shares of TuasOne, the operator of the mass-burn waste-to-energy plant. TuasOne was a joint venture between Hyflux, a major Singapore water treatment company that has since collapsed, and Mitsubishi Heavy, which turned TuasOne into a wholly owned subsidiary.
Mitsubishi Heavy has designed and constructed four waste-to-energy plants in Singapore and says it has the industry’s most extensive track record in Southeast Asia.
“In Southeast Asia, the infrastructure for waste collection has been progressing in recent years, and the population is increasing, so the demand for waste disposal is on an upswing,” said a source at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Environmental & Chemical Engineering.
A consortium led by Singapore-government-affiliated conglomerate Keppel has also received orders to design and build waste-to-energy plants in the country.
Outside Singapore and its limited land area, most of the garbage in Southeast Asia is disposed of via open dumping on vacant land. But groundwater pollution has become a problem in recent years as population growth results in more waste.
Open dumping and landfilling each account for more than 30% of each of the world’s waste disposal methods, while incineration and recycling account for more than 10% each, according to Japan’s Ministry of the Environment. Incineration is prevalent in Europe and Japan, and landfilling is common in the US.
While incineration emits carbon dioxide, landfilling generates methane gas, which is 25 times as potent as a greenhouse gas. Shifting to incineration reduces the amount of landfill waste and the effect on the environment, according to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Environmental & Chemical Engineering.
Waste-to-energy plants can also generate electricity using heat produced during incineration, leading to a rapid increase in interest in Southeast Asia.
Indian research firm Mordor Intelligence expects the Southeast Asian waste-to-energy market to grow from USD 3.3 billion in 2023 to USD 6.1 billion in 2028 — up about 80%.
Plans to set up at least six such plants in Malaysia got off the ground from 2020 to 2021, according to Mordor, with all of them expected to be completed by 2025. In Thailand, construction began in 2020 on a plant to incinerate about 144,000 tonnes of waste a year and generate 6 megawatts of power.
While overseas companies are also focusing on receiving orders, the strength of Japanese companies lies in their track record. Japan has about 1,000 waste disposal facilities, according to the Environment Ministry — the most in the world. Around 40% are equipped with power generation equipment.
Mitsubishi Heavy has developed technology to productively separate biodegradable garbage from plastic and other waste. The company looks to commercialize it in fiscal 2023, starting out in Japan before moving on to Southeast Asia and elsewhere.
In addition, Mitsubishi Heavy looks to combine the waste-to-energy units with carbon capture and storage technology. The collected CO2 can be used in chemical production.
Mitsubishi Heavy machinery is responsible for 70% or so of all CO2 captured worldwide. The company has a track record of delivering carbon capture equipment in Malaysia and Vietnam, so it is poised to expand in Southeast Asia’s garbage-processing market.
IHI conducted field testing in Malaysia involving co-firing palm oil waste at a coal-burning plant. Hitachi Zosen has landed contracts to build waste-to-energy plants in Thailand and Vietnam.
But having the technology may not be enough to succeed in the biomass business, according to Masaru Tanaka, professor emeritus at Japan’s Okayama University.
“There are concerns that not enough waste will be collected to generate electricity profitably for biomass and other technology,” Tanaka said.