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Sharjah wins waste-to-energy race as rest of region cleans up its act

Dumping in the desert is all too common in Saudi Arabia, which is planning to build large-scale waste-to-energy plants
  • New plant diverts 100% of Sharjah’s landfill to recycling or energy
  • Dubai and Bahrain postponed plants but are now playing catch-up
  • Saudi Arabia aims to generate 3GW from waste by 2030

Dubai had the Gulf’s first “seven-star” hotel and Abu Dhabi hosted the inaugural “day-night” Formula One Grand Prix. The emirate of Sharjah can claim a UAE first too – one that is less glitzy but potentially more transformative – the first waste-to-energy power plant.

The Sharjah waste-to-energy facility, officially inaugurated in May, adds another dimension to the region’s energy mix, where solar and nuclear power are already chasing a target of 50 percent clean energy by 2050. 

All the waste produced in Sharjah can now be diverted from landfill, to be recycled or sent to the waste-to-energy plant.

Waste-to-energy plants work by burning non-recyclable waste to heat a boiler, producing steam that turns power-generating turbines. By-products created in the process, such as ash, can be reused by the construction industry. 

The Sharjah site has the capacity to process some 300,000 tonnes of waste a year, producing 30MW of electricity, enough to power around 28,000 homes.

Building, Factory, Power Plant
Sharjah’s new waste-to-energy project: the first emirate to be waste free. Image: Beeah

Yesar Al-Maliki, a Middle East energy analyst, told AGBI that cold economics had blighted previous attempts to develop a waste-to-energy plant in the region.

“The main issue is project finance and commercial viability of these projects,” he said.

Bahrain and Dubai were the first to announce plans for waste-to-energy projects back in 2008-09, inviting companies to bid to develop plants as public-private partnerships. 

Waste-to-energy was offered as a technical solution to the soaring volumes of waste being sent to landfill amid rapid urbanisation and population growth, driven by the region’s construction boom. 

The global financial crisis derailed the Dubai project, however, and the contract for the Bahrain scheme was cancelled in 2014 to allow its scope to be revised.

Climate pledges

In 2022, waste-to-energy is firmly back on the Gulf’s agenda as governments seek to fulfil their climate commitments.

“The GCC wants to reach its [energy diversification] targets and waste-to-energy is important,” said Al-Maliki.

“For the scale to work, however, an incentivising framework has to be introduced with state players entering the projects. 

“Scale is important for these projects to compete with renewables and traditional generators of electricity from gas.”

The Sharjah plant was developed by Emirates Waste to Energy Company, a joint venture of Beeah Group – the company responsible for waste collection in Sharjah – and the Abu Dhabi government’s Masdar. The venture was set up to execute waste-to-energy projects across the region.

Construction finally got underway on Dubai’s waste-to-energy plant at Al Warsan in July 2020. With the capacity to process 1.9 million tonnes of waste and generate 200MW of electricity, the $1.2bn facility will dwarf the Sharjah scheme. 

The project is being developed by Belgium’s Besix and Hitachi Zosen Inova from Switzerland, under a build-operate-transfer contract with Dubai Municipality and a 35-year operations and maintenance period. 

Upon completion in 2024, the plant will be able to process up to 45 percent of Dubai’s municipal solid waste, producing electricity for some 120,000 households.

Abu Dhabi is also moving ahead with the first of two planned waste-to-energy plants.

In July this year, Abu Dhabi Waste Management Centre (Tadweer) invited proposals from pre-qualified companies for a facility to be built at Al Dhafra, capable of processing 900,000 tonnes of waste per year and generating electricity to power up to 52,500 homes. 

The project will be structured using the well-established independent power producer model, with the successful developer owning up to 40 percent of the project company and the remaining equity held indirectly by the Abu Dhabi government.

Building, Office Building, Toy
The Dubai plant, set for completion in 2024, will process up to 45% of the emirate’s municipal solid waste

Environmental benefits

The Abu Dhabi project is expected to reduce carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by up to 1.1 million tonnes a year, equivalent to removing more than 240,000 cars from the road.

The Sharjah plant, for its part, is forecast to displace almost 450,000 tonnes each year – helping the UAE work towards its target of net zero emissions by 2050.

The government has also pledged to divert 75 percent of its waste from landfill, reducing the risk that landfill will contaminate soil and groundwater.

“The environmental risks of traditional waste disposal methods amplify in the MENA region when we remember most cities are close to scarce water resources,” said Dr Ali Dadpay, an associate professor of finance at the University of Dallas and energy commentator. 

“Techniques such as landfills and open-air disposal damage the quality of water and biodiversity in these areas. They also reduce the arable lands and choke the cities, which one can see in Cairo and Tehran.”

Building, Factory, Assembly Line
Saudi Investment Recycling Company plans to recycle 82% of trash and process 19% in waste-to-energy plants

Saudi potential

With the largest population in the GCC, Saudi Arabia faces the biggest waste management challenge in the region.

The kingdom currently produces about 53 million tonnes of municipal solid waste each year, and volumes are expected to double by 2035. 

Just three cities – Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam – account for nearly half of all waste generated. Recycling is limited in the country, with 90 percent of waste going to landfill. Most landfills are already operating close to capacity.

To address the issue, the government has announced plans to adopt waste-to-energy on a large scale. Its Vision 2030 strategy includes a goal of developing 3GW worth of plants by the end of the decade.

Saudi Investment Recycling Company has since been set up to establish recycling capacities in the kingdom. 

Jeroen Vincent, a former CEO of the Saudi Investment Recycling Company, confirmed last year that Saudi Arabia plans to divert 100 percent of municipal solid waste from landfills by 2030, recycling 82 percent and processing 19 percent in waste-to-energy plants. He pointed out that landfill costs an average of $1.87 per tonne.

The Sadara Chemical Company’s industrial waste-to-energy facility has been the only project to emerge in Saudi Arabia to date, but the successful completion of Sharjah’s pathfinder scheme should provide an example for the kingdom to learn from.