Untreated municipal solid waste (MSW) in Haiti, often left to rot in the streets, has served as breeding ground for many harmful disease vectors since the 2010 earthquake. Poor waste disposal and management systems constitute a critical public health hazard in many Haitian cities. In the future, the adequate management and collection of MSW could play a crucial role in improving municipal hygiene, limiting epidemics, and ensuring greater water quality throughout the country.
Recently, the U.S.-based private company, International Electric Power LLC (IEP), announced the finalization of a partnership agreement with the Haitian government to build a 30 megawatt (MW) waste-to-energy power plant 18 kilometers north of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. The project, named “Project Phoenix,” intends to create an integrated waste management system and power generation facility near the country’s main population center. The power plant is intended to be a baseload source of power capable of producing 720 megawatt-hours of electricity per day to power around 75,000 households in Port-au-Prince.
IEP originally planned to use incineration technology in the plant, but has now decided to use methanization as well, a more appropriate process given Haiti’s waste composition. A recent study conducted by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) highlights that incineration is not the best-suited technology for converting Haiti’s waste to energy due to the high organic waste content. Organic waste accounts for 75 percent of Haiti’s MSW and is not appropriate for the Phoenix power plant’s incineration technology because its moisture content is too high to be burned efficiently in an incinerator. In contrast, the methanization process, which converts waste into biogas that can then be used for energy production, works best with waste that has high moisture and organic content as is the case in Haiti.
However, many signs indicate that the planned project will face challenges in meeting its electricity generation goals.
Since a large portion of Haiti’s roads and infrastructure were destroyed during the 2010 earthquake, transforming waste into energy, although a promising prospect for Haiti, is hindered by many logistical challenges linked to the feasibility of collecting waste. As a previous Worldwatch article highlights, if Port-au-Prince’s waste collection rate returned to its pre-earthquake level of 40 percent, it could fuel a 5 MW power plant. With a 100 percent collection rate (which the Phoenix Project plans to achieve), the city’s seven municipalities are estimated to have enough MSW to fuel a 14 MW power plant – still far from the 30 MW capacity proposed by Project Phoenix.
Since the success of the project largely depends on ample supply of MSW, a clear and transparent commitment is needed to address Haiti’s waste collection problem. In the Phoenix project description, IEP mentions a partnership with the Spanish firm Ros Roca, which specializes in manufacturing waste collection and treatment equipment such as collector trucks, road-cleaning machinery, and other cleaning equipment. Improved turning radii and hardened truck bodies are only two of many innovations that Ros Roca hopes to employ in Haiti that will allow IEP to collect nearly 100 percent of Port-au-Prince’s MSW. However, waste collection and management in Haiti cannot be solved with technology alone. Poor road infrastructure, low community awareness about the importance of responsible waste management, and the lack of capacity within the regional solid waste authority (Department of Public Works Solid Waste Collection Division, or SMCRS) to coordinate and oversee operations will likely impede the effectiveness of the waste collection scheme.
In the absence of a well-functioning waste collection system, it is highly unlikely that the Phoenix power plant will be able to operate near its planned generating capacity if the plant relies only on MSW for fuel. An 80 percent MSW collection rate – an ambitious target considering the current rate of only 25 percent – would allow the Phoenix plant to run at only 37 percent of its nameplate capacity, assuming NREL’s waste-to-energy conversions.
There is a high certainty that the Phoenix plant cannot be fueled by MSW alone if it is to be a source of reliable baseload power. As a consequence, the project’s earlier proposal planned on burninglignite, one of the most polluting and greenhouse gas-intensive fossil fuels, to supply the remaining generating capacity. Since Haiti’s existing coal resources are not currently being exploited, the project would have needed to invest in lignite mining operations and infrastructure over the next 30 years. Recent updates from IEP, though, reveal that the company is currently working to improve and advance project plans, including by removing lignite from the project. However, there are still no clear plans on alternative fuel sources that would allow the plant to be used to its full capacity.
Haiti is endowed with an abundance of renewable energy resources, including solar and wind, which can provide the country with clean, domestic, and affordable electricity. If coupled with an effective collection system, waste-to-energy has the potential to be developed alongside these other renewables and to provide positive health and environmental co-benefits to Haiti. However, despite the important positive benefits that Project Phoenix could provide, challenges remain if it is to become a reliable and low-carbon source of baseload power.