The high consumption of our urban centres is a drastic problem. Cities consume up 75% of natural resources and produce up to 80% of greenhouse gas emissions – yet they account for only about half the global population.
Our linear economy, and its “take, make and dispose” model, is a system that does not work. We can no longer harvest resources for activities such as energy production only to consume them and simply throw away the waste produced. What we need is a new system which aims for the continual use of resources and reduces a disposal process which is costly and heavily polluting.
What if the answer is right under our noses – or, rather, inside our wastebaskets?
In the European Union, each person annually produces up to six tonnes of waste, half of which winds up in landfills. What if, instead of “dump and disregard”, we could eliminate waste by feeding it back into the system as a resource?
This concept, known as creating a circular economy, has the amazing potential to alter the precarious course we are on. Unlike the linear economy, circularity can replenish our global supply chains by designing out waste and pollution and keeping resources in play for as long as possible.
Applying circular thinking to the energy industry would allow utilities to open up new fields of innovation and become more sustainable and cost-effective. Simply put, the circular economy and a waste-to-energy system can help us transform the energy transition into a reality.
At City Energy Solutions, E.ON’s business dedicated to developing integrated solutions for cities and communities, we are actively incorporating circularity into our offering, and in doing so, reimagining waste as a resource.
At the core of our efforts is a waste hierarchy model known as the “waste staircase”. According to this model, the use of resources and materials are minimised where possible, what cannot be minimised is recycled and whatever cannot be recycled is recovered (repurposed to serve a new useful purpose) where we can. Disposal is a final step that only takes place, reluctantly, when no other option exists.
Employing the process a circular economy, and energy recovery in particular, is the driving force behind several of our exciting projects taking place across Europe – and by using innovation and technology, we are already impacting the lives of thousands of city dwellers and pioneering a new approach to energy use. For example, at the Högbytorp energy recovery plant near Stockholm, a single bag of food waste can create enough biomethane to drive a normal Volkswagen car for 2.1 kilometres, instead of gasoline.Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are still lagging behind, but probably not for much longer. While the statistics show that in 2019 there were only 17,000 fuel-cell vehicles worldwide, a growing number of hydrogen projects could flip the scale very soon. In the German town of Kaisersesch, for example, all inner-city buses will be powered by hydrogen by 2023.
In cities, heating is to blame for 85% of greenhouse gas emissions – and waste heat is a widespread culprit of the problem.
Waste heat is a by-product created by machines at work; such as the residual heat created by air-conditioning and engine cooling systems, or on a larger scale, power plants and data centres. The persistence of waste heat means machines must work even harder to achieve their desired energy output, resulting in increased carbon gas emissions.
But, through technology and innovation, we have learned that instead of pumping waste heat into the atmosphere to get rid of it, we can use it as a resource – and in doing so, create renewable energy of significant economic and environmental value.
In the Swedish city of Örebro for example, a local hockey arena recycles its waste heat back into district heating for the rink. It was developed through infrared-mapping of Örebro’s landscape over several cold winter days, determining that the hockey arena was pumping huge amounts of waste heat from its roof into the air. By working with local authorities and real estate companies, we were able to install a new heat pumping solution into the building and feedback residual heat into the district heating network – reducing both the rink’s operational costs and carbon emissions at the same time.
As urbanisation and the size of our cities continue to grow, we need to find more sustainable, innovative energy solutions. Cooperation among citizens and legislators at the early stages of project development is important in creating the necessary grid infrastructures and digital frameworks for a circular economy.
If successful, we can create entire energy systems where customers use what they need and share what they do not with other customers. Citizens can become both energy consumers and producers, and potentially reduce their energy costs and carbon footprints simultaneously.
At the Milan Expo Arena, we are currently aligning the diverse needs of different vendors, from heating to cooling, to design methods for a waste-to-energy system. Similarly, in Berlin, a partnership with a local real estate company has allowed us to take residual heat from a and turn it into heating for buildings.
Customers stand to directly benefit. In Stockholm, municipality meetings are being held to discuss how citizens can take part in waste-to-energy recycling projects and be incentivised with lowered costs. Regulation and bureaucracy are hurdles that must be overcome to make this happen, but it is undeniable that these types of solutions can inevitably lead us in the right direction.
We as a society need to call on legislators to pull away from the linear economy and move towards a circular one. We need to re-evaluate our behaviours when it comes to waste and start advancing change at the citizen and community levels.
Thankfully, decision-makers are finally starting to prioritise a circular economy – the European Commission recently published its Circular Economy Action Plan pushing for more sustainable products in sectors like electronics, packaging and food. Alongside the clear environmental impacts, the plan also reckons that the circular economy can significantly benefit growth and job creation, raising the EU’s GDP by 0.5% by 2030 and creating 700,000 new jobs.
But there is still a long way to go. According to the annual Circularity Gap report, only 8.6% of the world economy was circular in 2020, a decrease from 9.1% in 2018. We need to first shift our mindset and efforts to truly grasp these exciting opportunities in the energy industry, and also several other aspects of society.
Because one person’s trash can be another person’s treasured resource – or perhaps even the resource of an entire community.
The contributions reflect the opinions of the authors and not necessarily those of E.ON. E.ON cannot be held liable for the use of the information contained in the contributions. In particular, E.ON accepts no responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the information supplied. Further, E.ON accepts no responsibility that contributions are up-to-date.