Pop-up Power Plants – Small-scale waste to energy Solutions

Unofficial dumpsite

Burning unofficial dumpsite in informal settlement in Tshwane. Photo: GIZ

The Indian start-up Carbon Masters Ltd. has been successfully introducing small to medium scale bio-digesters to the Indian market. These bio-digesters are built using reused shipping containers to produce bio-methane and organic fertilisers from organic waste. The products are branded and sold as Carbonlites. Carbonlites bio-cng is a climate friendly fuel with applications for displacing LPG for commercial cooking as well as powering trucks. Carbonlites organic fertilisers provide the farming sector with an environmentally friendly and affordable fertiliser, that can help farmers reduce their use of chemical fertilisers, further saving CO2 emissions. The multiple benefits of this approach have been so remarkable that their Carbonlites initiative was awarded the “Better Together Award” by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety (BMU) in 2019.

Improving air quality and mitigating climate change

It was this award that raised the interest of South African partners of the project “Integrated Air Quality Management and Climate Change Mitigation in the framework of the World Bank’s Pollution Management and Environmental Health (PMEH) Programme”, which is implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH on behalf of the BMU.

The project has been planning and implementing solutions with local decisionmakers how to improve the quality of air while at the same time mitigating climate change and its impacts in South Africa (and Vietnam). Hence, the focus of the project have been so called “short-lived climate pollutants” (SLCPs), including methane, tropospheric ozone and black carbon. These pollutants negatively affect human health, the climate and (agro-) ecosystems. While remaining in the atmosphere for shorter periods than CO2, SLCPs have a much higher global warming potential during that period as compared to CO2. The 1,5°C goal of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) can only be achieved, if emissions of CO2 and SLCPs are being reduced simultaneously.

As landfills in Pretoria are also quickly running out of space, solutions that would reduce the waste being transported to landfills, decrease the emissions of SLCPs, produce biomethane for use in kitchens, transport, and create new jobs are very much sought after.

From India to South Africa – upscaling the Carbonlites solution

Presentation in a meeting

Carbonlites offers a solution, which not only produces bio-methane that can be bottled or piped to end-users but also an organic fertiliser, thereby displacing chemical fertilisers. Hence, Carbon Masters was invited to do a feasibility study of transferring their bio-methane plants to the African continent. First calculations of that study focusing on landfills in Pretoria reveal that there is a business case to transfer Carbonlites bio-methane technology to South Africa.

The problems of waste management in Pretoria are very similar to those in India, where the default position of sending this waste to landfills allied with the lack of processing capability of the organic waste is not sustainable. In addition, as LPG and fertiliser prices are higher in South Africa than in India and with comparable labor costs between the two countries, and even allowing for   higher capital costs for imported purification and bottling equipment,  solving  the waste problem this way  has an attractive return on the investment. Since visiting South Africa Carbon Masters are now also in discussions with potential clients in both Cameroon and Botswana about bringing their pop-up biogas plants to these countries.

So, an idea born in India could soon be popping up across Africa saving both GHG emissions, improving air quality and creating local employment.