Waste-to-Energy: One Solution for Health and Electrification in Haiti?

Following the devastating 2010 earthquake, much of Haiti’s infrastructure, including its already limited ability to manage its municipal solid waste (MSW), was damaged or destroyed. Due largely to lack of public waste management services and sewage treatment centers, thousands of people have died and hundreds of thousands more have suffered through outbreaks of cholera. Haiti needs improved sanitation, and improving and building infrastructure to reliably collect MSW will help achieve this goal.

Improved MSW management can also increase power generation from domestic sources in Haiti, providing some relief from its dependence on imported heavy fuel oil and helping to electrify a country where 75 percent of people do not have access to the grid.

Recent studies show that there is potential for waste-to-energy in Haiti. The metropolitan Port-au-Prince area produces between 1,400 and 1,600 tons of MSW every day. Before the 2010 earthquake, as much as 40 percent of Port-au-Prince’s MSW was collected by waste management services. If the metropolitan area can return to this collection rate and use the MSW as a fuel for power generation, Port-au-Prince could fuel a 5 MW power plant. While this may seem like a marginal addition, it would contribute significantly to Haiti’s power mix considering that the country’s entire operational installed capacity is little more than 100 MW.

If Port-au-Prince increases its collection rate even further, which many organizations and companies are hoping to achieve, the city’s MSW could fuel up to 12 MW of generation capacity. Other cities and regions in Haiti also show potential for waste-to-energy plants, notably Gonaives and Cap-Haitien.

Because Cap-Haitien has one of Haiti’s two major landfills (the other is in Port-au-Prince), it is an attractive site for a waste-to-energy plant. According to the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), Cap-Haitien’s estimated daily production of 135 tons of MSW could power a 470 kilowatt plant (assuming a 40 percent collection rate). If the city could collect close to 100 percent of its waste, it could fuel a power plant greater than 1 MW. Currently, Cap-Haitien has an operating power generation capacity of just over 2 MW, so an additional 0.47 to 1 MW in added capacity could significantly help to power this city of more than 200,000 people.

It is estimated that 65 to 75 percent of Haiti’s MSW comes from food waste alone. Because this organic matter has much higher moisture levels than paper waste, it is not an effective fuel for combustion power plants. Instead, bio-digesters, which expose organic wastes to heat and low-oxygen environments, can be used to produce methane. In turn, this methane can be used to power generators or provide cooking fuel for homes.

Besides improving sanitation and providing methane, bio-digesters produce inorganic fertilizer as well. While 50 to 70 percent of MSW is converted into energy through methane production, the remaining 30 to 50 percent of material that remains (consisting of solids and water) can be used to replace inorganic fertilizers. Since the agricultural sector is an important part of the Haitian economy, this can provide an important product to local communities.

Today, there are two biogas projects operating in Haiti, both in the Bel-Air neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. These projects have been largely successful, especially since they have trained local people to build and manage the plants, but barriers still remain. Barriers include cultural hesitations regarding using waste for energy, construction costs, and a limited ability to store MSW and gas. Nevertheless, the recent cholera outbreaks highlight the need for a more effective waste management system, and developing waste-to-energy biogas plants could go a long in helping Haiti to achieve two of its most pressing needs: greater sanitation and increased access to energy.

Matt Lucky is a Sustainable Energy Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute.

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