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How Do Incinerators Generate Electricity?

submitted on 4 July 2024 by b2blistings.org
In our modern world, the challenge of managing waste whilst simultaneously meeting our ever-growing energy demands has led to innovative solutions. One such solution that addresses both issues is the use of incinerators to generate electricity. This process, known as waste-to-energy (WtE) or energy-from-waste (EfW), has gained traction in many countries as an alternative to traditional waste disposal methods and fossil fuel-based power generation. In this blog post, we'll explore the fascinating process of how incinerators turn our rubbish into usable electricity.

The Basics of Incineration

Before delving into the electricity generation process, it's crucial to understand what incineration entails. Incineration is the controlled burning of waste materials at high temperatures, typically between 850C and 1200C. This process significantly reduces the volume of waste, often by up to 90%, leaving behind only ash and other non-combustible materials.

Modern incinerators are far more sophisticated than their predecessors, employing advanced technologies to minimise environmental impact and maximise energy recovery. These facilities are designed to handle various types of waste, including municipal solid waste (MSW), commercial waste, and certain industrial wastes.

The Journey from Waste to Watts

The process of generating electricity from waste incineration involves several key steps:
  1. Waste Collection and Sorting: The journey begins with the collection of waste from homes, businesses, and industries. Upon arrival at the incineration facility, the waste undergoes a sorting process. Recyclable materials are removed, and any hazardous items are separated for specialised treatment.
  2. Waste Storage and Feeding: The remaining waste is stored in a bunker, where it's mixed to ensure a consistent composition. A crane operator then transfers the waste into a feed hopper, which controls the rate at which waste enters the incinerator.
  3. Combustion: The waste is fed onto a moving grate within the combustion chamber. As it moves along the grate, it's exposed to high temperatures, causing it to ignite and burn. The grate's movement ensures that the waste is thoroughly burned and that ash falls through for collection.
  4. Heat Recovery: The hot gases produced during combustion, which can reach temperatures of up to 1000C, pass through a boiler. The boiler contains water-filled tubes that absorb the heat, converting the water into high-pressure steam.
  5. Electricity Generation: This is where the magic happens. The high-pressure steam drives a turbine connected to a generator. As the turbine spins, the generator converts this mechanical energy into electrical energy through electromagnetic induction.
  6. Emissions Control: Before the flue gases are released into the atmosphere, they undergo a series of treatments to remove pollutants. This typically includes:
    • Selective Non-Catalytic Reduction (SNCR) to reduce nitrogen oxides
    • Activated carbon injection to capture heavy metals and dioxins
    • Lime injection to neutralise acid gases
    • Fabric filters or electrostatic precipitators to remove particulate matter
  7. Ash Handling: The incineration process produces two types of ash: bottom ash (from the combustion grate) and fly ash (collected from the flue gas treatment). Bottom ash can often be used in construction applications, while fly ash requires careful disposal due to its potential toxicity.

Efficiency and Output

The efficiency of electricity generation from waste incineration has improved significantly over the years. Modern facilities can achieve electrical efficiencies of 20-30%, with some advanced plants reaching up to 35%. This means that for every tonne of waste incinerated, approximately 500-700 kWh of electricity can be generated.

To put this into perspective, the average UK household consumes about 3,700 kWh of electricity per year. Therefore, every 5-7 tonnes of waste incinerated could potentially power a home for an entire year.

Many incineration plants also operate as combined heat and power (CHP) facilities. In addition to generating electricity, they capture the residual heat for use in district heating systems or industrial processes. This cogeneration approach can increase the overall energy efficiency to 80% or more.

Environmental Considerations

While incineration with energy recovery offers numerous benefits, it's not without controversy. Critics argue that it may discourage recycling efforts and that emissions, despite stringent controls, could still pose health risks. However, proponents point out several environmental advantages:
  1. Reduced Landfill Reliance: Incineration significantly reduces the volume of waste sent to landfills, thereby decreasing methane emissions (a potent greenhouse gas) from decomposing organic waste.
  2. Lower Carbon Footprint: When compared to landfilling and fossil fuel-based electricity generation, waste-to-energy can result in lower overall greenhouse gas emissions.
  3. Metal Recovery: Modern incinerators can recover metals from the ash for recycling, further conserving resources.
  4. Strict Emissions Standards: In the UK and EU, waste incineration plants must comply with the Industrial Emissions Directive, which sets stringent limits on emissions of pollutants.

The UK Context

The United Kingdom has been increasingly turning to energy-from-waste as part of its waste management and renewable energy strategies. As of 2021, there were over 40 operational EfW plants in the UK, with several more under construction or in planning stages. These facilities play a crucial role in the UK's efforts to divert waste from landfills and meet renewable energy targets. In 2020, EfW plants in the UK generated approximately 6.1 TWh of electricity, enough to power around 1.6 million homes. However, the UK still lags behind some European countries in terms of EfW adoption. For instance, countries like Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands incinerate a much higher proportion of their waste, often with higher energy recovery efficiencies.

Future Developments

The technology behind waste-to-energy continues to evolve. Some exciting developments on the horizon include:
  1. Improved Sorting Technologies: Advanced robotics and AI-driven systems are being developed to improve the sorting of waste, ensuring that only non-recyclable materials are sent for incineration.
  2. Enhanced Energy Efficiency: Researchers are working on ways to increase the electrical efficiency of incineration plants, potentially pushing it above 40%.
  3. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS): Some projects are exploring the feasibility of integrating CCS technology with waste-to-energy plants, which could make the process carbon-negative.
  4. Plasma Gasification: This advanced thermal treatment technology could offer even higher efficiencies and lower emissions than traditional incineration.


Incinerators that generate electricity represent a innovative approach to tackling two pressing issues: waste management and sustainable energy production. By turning our rubbish into a valuable resource, these facilities are helping to reduce landfill use, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and provide a reliable source of baseload power.

However, it's important to remember that incineration should be part of a broader waste management strategy that prioritises reduction, reuse, and recycling. As we continue to seek sustainable solutions to our energy and waste challenges, the role of waste-to-energy is likely to grow, driven by technological advancements and the urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels.

As consumers and citizens, we all have a part to play in this process. By being mindful of our waste production and supporting comprehensive recycling programmes, we can ensure that only the most appropriate materials end up fueling these remarkable machines that turn our trash into treasure - or more precisely, into the electricity that powers our homes and businesses.


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