The Repi Waste-to-energy facility is located at an open-dump site in Addis Abeba. The plant was officially inaugurated a couple of weeks ago and has received significant media coverage at the national and continental level.
The facility required about 2.6 billion Br to construct and was initially planned to generate up to 50 MW of electric power a year, covering a third of household electricity consumption in Addis Abeba, according to information released during its inauguration.
Aside from the coverage it received in the national media, the plant was highlighted by a number of regional and international media outlets as an environmentally friendly investment that needed to be replicated by other African countries.
“The development of Reppie represents Phase I of a wider rollout program to develop multiple waste-to-energy plants across SSA’s major cities,” a statement on the website of Cambridge Industries, the project contractor, reads.
Despite the accolades though, it was a misguided investment beginning with the initial decision-making process.
It is crucial to understand the historical background of the technology. Waste incineration was developed in the 1960s and ‘70s as a solution to the increasing volume of waste generated, which created disposal challenges at sanitary landfills by shortening their lifespans.
While finding a more cost-effective disposal of the growing volume of waste was the primary driver, generation of energy and hot water production were the other factors that expedited the proliferation of waste incineration facilities in European urban centres in the 1980s and the ‘90s.
From the perspective of operational efficiency, there are a number of fundamental prerequisites for the technology to be economically viable. Primarily, a significant proportion, about 40pc, of the domestic waste, has to consist of energy-rich combustible waste.
The city also has to have relatively efficient waste segregation and collection infrastructure that ensures collection and sorting of the waste at a minimal cost. Just as crucial is the necessity of the plant having a co-generation possibility that will enable it to make use of the steam and hot water that comes out after driving the turbine.
Such waste incineration systems were quite effective until the mid-90s in Europe but were later considered to be white elephants as the waste management practice shifted from disposal to “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.”
Addis Abeba does not meet most of the fundamental prerequisites outlined above. As a matter of fact, with the exception of a couple of cities in South Africa, none of the urban centres in Sub-Saharan Africa would fulfill the operational requirements.
Even for those cities which may have a higher percentage of combustible waste, they can make higher values from such waste through recycling and reuse rather than incineration for energy generation.
Of course, African countries would need to have small-scale incinerators to handle hazardous waste generated in medical and industrial processes, for example. However, considering the composition of domestic waste of most African urban centres, which is 60pc to 75pc dirt and biodegradable waste, incineration for energy generation is a fundamentally wrong and misplaced choice of technology. Furthermore, the mining of combustible waste from the existing dumping site at Repi would significantly increase the embedded energy that would be consumed to generate every megawatt of energy.
The most disappointing fact is that, for the same amount of investment that was spent on this project, the Addis Abeba city administration could have had an efficient Integrated Solid Waste Management System that would have created thousands of jobs.
The whole idea of the project is a typical case of taking Africa as a dumping site for obsolete technologies. Promoting it as the future direction for African urban centres, in the presence of other resource efficient waste management techniques and technologies, is offensive to the region.
African countries should avoid making similar mistakes and make more informed and rational decisions on their future infrastructural investment including their waste management infrastructure.