Increased Wealth and Waste Generation Driving WtE in Asia : IN DEPTH: Waste to Energy - China Drives an Asian Awakening

Artist's impression of the facility off the coast of Shek Kwu Chau and south of Lantau Island. It is expected to be completed by 2024.
© Keppel Seghers

As wealth rises, so too does waste generation. For the waste to energy industry that makes for a supersized opportunity in Asia, and in nowhere more so than China.

Of the 20 most populous countries in the world, half are in Asia, including the two behemoths of India and China, each of which are home to nearly 1.5 billion citizens. By 2030 it is expected that population growth will account for another 400 million or so people, all consuming resources, all buying products, all leading increasingly energy-intensive lives, and all generating more and more waste.

However, the populations of these countries are not just growing, they’re also moving. According to the World Bank, over the 2010-16 period, urban population growth increased 8% in China, 7% in Thailand, 5% in Indonesia and 4% in Viet Nam. While not as rapid, urbanisation in India and Pakistan is also on the rise. Over the same period, these countries saw 160 million new residents in their cities.

Add to this scenario the demand for improved sanitation and living conditions, and the appeal of waste to energy is clear - clean waste disposal combined with energy generation. In many countries the ball is already well and truly rolling in the development of an extensive network of waste to energy infrastructure.

Famous for its Five Year Plans (FYPs) and fast, ambitious infrastructure development, it’s unsurprising that China is leading the way in the region and there is much that other Asian countries can take away from its example.

Chinese Takeaways

According to a January 2019 report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), China now has the largest installed waste to energy capacity of any country globally with 7.3 GW across 339 plants at the end of 2017. The industry has grown by 1 GW per year on average in the past five years, and now represents the largest form of bioenergy capacity in the country, capable of managing just over 100 million tonnes of solid waste per year.

The report Will Energy from Waste Become the Key Form of Bioenergy in Asia? states that capacity in China grew at an annual average growth rate of 26% over the past five years, compared with 4% in OECD countries between 2010-16. Consequently, capacity in China is now equivalent to 40% of that installed in all OECD countries combined.

“The sector started in China around 30 years ago,” explains Yuanyang OU, deputy manager for international business at Chinese waste to energy giant Shanghai SUS Environment. “In 2000, grate technology from Japan and Europe was introduced. For our company we introduced the Hitachi Zosen grate technology in 2009 and we are now the largest grate incineration supplier in China. In 2014 we also started to invest in our own waste to energy plants. We now have 25 operational plants and another six that will become operational this year.”

“In China there are now over 300 waste to energy plants and around another 200 currently under construction,” she tells WMW. “The government actually offers subsidies for feed-in-tariffs. One third of a waste to energy plant’s income comes from the tipping fee with the other two thirds coming from feed-in-tarries. It’s different from Europe. The government pays 0.65 RMB per kWh ($95 per MWh).”

The IEA notes that in addition to the feed-in-tariff, the 13th FYP allocates more than $40 billion of funding to new facilities. Combined, these measures make waste to energy an economically attractive proposition in China and have led to rapid development.

Tailored Solutions

It’s well known that the municipal waste composition in much of Asia is somewhat different to that of Europe. With considerably more moisture content it becomes necessary to take additional measures in the design of the storage and combustion processes.

“Most of the plants are treating municipal solid waste which comes from the city centres and passes through transfer stations,” explains Yuanyang OU. “We use bunkers that can store the waste. After about 10 days about 20% of the leachate will have leaked out. We also lengthen the grate length to about 40 metres so the waste can be dried well in the first stage – we call it the drying stage.”

“Sometimes a very small portion of commercial and industrial waste can be treated in the plants, but that kind of waste has additional preconditions from the government and the plant owners,” she adds. “The plot of land is selected by the local government and they will select the land with the least households nearby. There is a regulation that there should be no residents within 300 metres of a waste to energy plant. It’s a buffer zone.”

Emerging Markets

Over the next decade it’s likely that many countries in Asia will look to follow China’s lead in developing waste to energy capacity. One that stands out right now, however, is Viet Nam.

“Viet Nam has its first waste to energy plant already at 400 tonnes per day, but we are trying to secure some larger ones,” says Yuanyang OU. “The country has similar regulations to China with a subsidiary tariff which pays a feed-in fee. The structure is similar, but they haven’t had this type of facility before. But now their waste is becoming more and more, they are trying to learn from China. So far, a lot of the Chinese companies are active in Viet Nam, including us.”

Viet Nam currently generates more than 27.8 million tonnes of waste annually. Most of the waste collected is disposed in landfill in an unsanitary manner. This poses a significant health threat to nearby communities, mostly urban poor.

Hong Kong-based environmental services firm, China Everbright International Limited, has secured a $100 million loan from the Asian Development Bank to help develop a series of municipal waste to energy plants in primary and secondary cities in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam. The initiative will be the first municipal waste to energy public-private partnership project in the country.

Elsewhere, Thailand is also looking to the technology as a solution to its growing waste production. The Thai government has also established subsidies and tax incentives for various waste to energy plants, including incineration, gasification, fermentation and landfill gas capture. Installed capacity currently stands at 203 MW.

Meanwhile, progress in the potentially massive market of India has been slow to get off the ground, but that could change. In July last year, Hitachi Zosen India Private Limited has signed contracts with the Essel Group for the delivery of three waste to energy plants in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

Pakistan, too, introduced a tariff of $100/MWh in 2018, and projects are in development in Lahore and Islamabad.

In Indonesia, a waste to energy development plan for the country’s eight big cities has been regarded as a national strategic project and has been confirmed by Presidential Regulation No. 35 of 2018.

A Tale of Two Cities

While it’s not only Asia’s developing markets which are relative newcomers when it comes to recovering energy from their wastes think of the fully developed territory of Hong Kong which has only relatively recently embarked on the development of infrastructure - in Singapore, the technology is well established.

Later this year, the 3600 TPD TuasOne waste to energy plant, developed by Hyflux Ltd and MHI, is due to be completed. Representing an investment of around $470 million, it is expected to generate a total of some 120 MW.

Back in 2009, opening the then new Keppel Seghers’ Tuas plant, the reason for Singapore choosing incineration as its primary method of waste treatment and disposal in the 1970s was emphasised by the deputy prime minister, Mr Teo Chee Hean in his speech when opening the new plant: “With just 700 km2 and a high population density, Singapore needed to find an alternative to the land-intensive method of landfilling waste.”

It’s a land use conflict that is certainly reflected in Hong Kong, and just last year, Keppel secured a whopping $4 billion with its Chinese partner, Zhen Hu, for the territory’s first integrated waste management facility to be built on a reclaimed island. The Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) phase will be undertaken by Zhen Hua, one of the biggest construction and reclamation companies in Hong Kong with strong civil and marine works experience. Keppel Seghers will provide its proprietary waste to energy technology as well as project implementation and execution of the mechanical treatment plant, power island and desalination facilities.


When it comes to delivering clean and efficient management infrastructure in Asia, for the richest parts of the continent such as Singapore and Hong Kong, throwing money at the problem is not an issue. For the poorest countries, it is simply not option. For the middle ground, it’s an increasingly attractive prospect. And that middle ground is already huge, and growing quickly.

Lately, there’s been much made of China's economic growth slowing, but it’s still running at 6.5% annually. As the global economic balance shifts to the east, we’ve seen some truly staggering infrastructure projects in China. The Three Gorges Dam, the Belt and Road Action Plan, the 38,000 km of high-speed rail.

China’s a country that likes to get things done. So it’s hardly a surprise that when it comes to managing its waste better, it’s grabbed the bull by the horns. Where China leads, expect large swaths of the continent to follow.