Jo’burg landfills could be cooking with gas

Johannesburg’s five major landfill sites release thousands of tonnes of harmful methane into the atmosphere each year. ENER-G Systems Joburg, a renewable-energy solution provider, aims to produce enough power from these sites to supply 14 000 middle-income houses.

A consortium of five companies, it won a 20-year tender with the city in 2008 for gas development on the sites. At the Robinson Deep landfill in Turffontein, 64 wells have already been installed. Each well runs 25m deep into 50m of waste and underground pipes direct the flow of gas and a vacuum blower draws it closer. The gas will be fed into electricity generators and a high-voltage cable will feed the power to the Turffontein substation.

But ENER-G Systems missed the first window to bid in the department of energy’s independent power producer procurement programme, although methane has been flared at Robinson Deep since July to prevent it from escaping into the atmosphere. Further work on the project will start only once the consortium has secured preferred-bidder status with the department and Eskom.

Last week the department released the results for the first bidding window. Although several preferred bidders were announced for solar and wind technologies, allocations for biogas, biomass, small hydro and landfill gas were still there for the taking. Landfill gas makes up 25MW of the total allocation of 3 725MW for renewable-energy sources.

The department told the Mail & Guardian that it anticipated much lower participation for the first bidding window, which was why five such windows were provided to allow bidders to participate in accordance with their readiness.

“Given the 1 416MW taken in window one, it looks like the allocation will be exhausted before the fifth window,” the department said.

It received 53 bids, of which 28 became preferred bidders. “The unsuccessful bids did not meet the request for proposal requirements. We hope bidders will rectify their mistakes and resubmit at their convenience,” said the department.

Gregory Midlane, project manager at ENER-G Systems, said the allocations were “spot on” for the available energy in South Africa, but the selection criteria for the programme were released just three months before the first bidding window closed. ENER-G Systems and many other developers were not ready to submit a bid or finance the significant cost — a bid bond of R100 000 had to be raised for each installed megawatt and noncompliant bids would not be refunded.

Regarding landfill gas, the department said it could not speculate about why companies had not yet taken up the offer.

Midlane said ENER-G Systems would be prepared for the next window when it opened in March.

If the consortium can secure its place in the procurement programme, it can rapidly begin to produce electricity from Robinson Deep. The remaining sites in Johannesburg should be operational next year and the project will become the largest of its kind in Africa.

Because methane is 21 times more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, every tonne destroyed earns 21 carbon credits. ENER-G Systems will receive part of the credits and the City of Jo’burg the remainder. Revenue from power sales will also be divided between the consortium and the city.

Landfill plants can produce commercially viable amounts of methane gas for between 20 and 30 years, and 560 000 tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent gas can be destroyed each year. The entire project carries an investment of R250-million, which will be borne by ENER-G Systems at no cost to the city. “It’s a win-win situation,” Midlane said.

It is clear that South Africa is a brand-new market with massive potential and the payout is imminent for those with the foresight to invest in the green economy.

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Lisa Steyn
Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a masters degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen.

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