Addis Ababa — Ethiopia's capital will mine its largest landfill to produce energy, as part of a bid to eliminate trash and supplement the country's hydropower supply, which could be vulnerable to droughts and increasingly extreme weather.
Away from the gleaming skyscrapers that dot the city's major roads, many of Addis Ababa's neighbourhoods are dirty and strewn with rubbish. One of the reasons is the lack of capacity at the city's dump sites.
But under an agreement signed at the beginning this year between a British company and the Ethiopian government, there are plans to turn waste at the city's largest landfill into energy.
Cambridge Industries Limited will develop the country's first waste-to-energy facility next to the 50-year-old dump known locally as Koshe, which means "dirty" in Amharic.
The $120 million facility, which will be paid for and owned by Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo), a state utility, will generate up to 50 megawatts (MW) of electricity through a controlled combustion process consuming 350,000 tonnes of waste annually.
Once the plant is completed in 18 months' time, it is expected to provide non-fossil-fuel power to the national electricity grid while helping to reduce municipal solid waste. The plant aims to eventually employ around 1,500 people.
Mihret Debebe, chief executive officer of EEPCo, says that the facility's proximity to the capital will save a significant amount of energy that is otherwise lost when power is transmitted from a more distant location.
BACKUP FOR HYDROPOWER
The plant is expected to deliver consistent power when hydroelectric generation is significantly reduced by low river flows because of seasonal or broader climatic change. It also will replace several expensive diesel-powered plants that have been used to cover power shortages.
The Ministry of Water and Energy, which oversees EEPCo, views the new project as part of Ethiopia's diversification of its energy supply, helping meet the fast-growing economy's demand for power.
At the same time, the scheme will improve the management of waste generated by an increasing population and a growing consumer culture.
However, the plan to burn waste is raising questions for about 1,500 people who currently make a living directly or indirectly from the landfill.
One of them is Aylanesh Leuleseged, who has been finding and selling scraps of metal, plastic, shoe soles and other materials from the site for the past three decades.
Despite frequently suffering cuts from sharp objects, respiratory infections and irritation of the eyes, the 60-year-old widow continues in order to earn about 60 Ethiopian birr (about $3.25) a day to support her three children.
True Concern for Community Development Association, a local nongovernmental organisation which supports the interests of scavengers at the landfill, says the project raises some uncertainty for them, but it hopes that plans to eventually expand energy generation by bringing in more waste will make Koshe a continuing source of livelihood for at least some of them.
The director general of the Environmental Protection Authority, Tewolde-Berhan Gebreegziabher, said that the new plant will have significant environmental benefits. Waste stored at the landfill currently emits methane, which apart from its unpleasant smell is a greenhouse gas that traps the sun's heat within the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change. The new facility will capture the gas and prevent its release into the atmosphere.
However, Gebreegziabher said that not all the waste at the dump should be burned, since biomass brought in from rural areas contains minerals and nutrients and could be processed to be sold as organic fertilizer.
"I believe that there should be a strategy to effectively produce mobile (bio)mass resources, which could be (being) neglected in this project in favour of just power generation," the EPA chief said.
The new plant is part of the government's Climate Resilient Green Economy, a $150 billion strategy launched in November 2011 with the dual objectives of making Ethiopia a middle-income economy by 2025 while keeping greenhouse gas emissions constant.
AIM TO BE CARBON NEUTRAL
Ethiopia aims to become a carbon-neutral economy by reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas, to equal the absorption rates of the country's forests.
Samuel Alemayehu, East Africa managing director for Cambridge Industries, said the company has begun expanding its activities in Ethiopia, with feasibility studies done for waste-to-energy plants in seven other, smaller cities.
According to the government's own preliminary studies, about 35 cities have the potential to generate substantial amounts of electricity in this way.
EEPCo plans to boost generating capacity from its current level of about 2,200 MW to 37,000 MW by 2037, using a variety of energy sources including hydro, wind, geothermal and waste.
Cambridge Industries expects to eventually make Koshe a transfer station for a new waste disposal site. Its plans call for generating an additional 150 MW of electricity by using all of Addis's waste, including that from condominiums as well as agricultural and animal waste.
Debebe, the EEPCo head, notes that countries such as the UK sell their waste in order to dispose of it, and he speculates that foreign waste might become a valuable source of hard currency as well as energy in the future.
E.G. Woldegebriel is a journalist based in Addis Ababa with an interest in environmental issues.