Navigant Research Blog

Rise of Megacities Brings Waste-to-Energy Opportunities

— March 1, 2012

In a recent article in the Guardian profiling the rapid rise in the number of cities home to more than 10 million people, Paul Webster and Jason Burke explain that the scale and speed of urbanization worldwide have reached unprecedented levels.  Estimates to be published in Pike Research’s forthcoming waste-to-energy (WTE) report indicate that the global population living in urban areas will reach 4.5 billion in 2022 – nearly one billion more than in 2011. 

According to some experts, the number of such “megacities” will double over the next 10 to 20 years.  Less well-known cities, particularly in south and east Asia, will see the biggest growth.

China is in the midst of a well-documented urbanization stampede.  Visiting Beijing five straight years in the early 2000s, I observed the scale of construction and expansion firsthand.  Highways were laid down in weeks and a forest of construction cranes dominated the skyline.  During that time, Beijing’s famous ring roads (now numbering 7) rippled outward, swallowing up the surrounding areas and transforming hastily-built residential settlements into massive steel, glass, and concrete multi-use high-rises. 

Last month, Chinese authorities announced that for the first time more than half of the country’s population lives in cities.  Current estimates put the total urban population at 691 million, more than double the entire U.S. population.  This number is projected to reach at least 800 million by 2022, according to Pike Research estimates, or enough people to populate 80 megacities.  In 2011, there were just 27 megacities worldwide. 

An inevitable byproduct of urbanization, and the corresponding consumerism that accompanies it, solid waste generation is projected to increase in lockstep with megacity growth over the next decade.  Again, China leads the way.  Pike Research analysis shows that municipal solid waste (MSW) in China will reach 472 million tons annually by 2022, or 17% of global estimates. 

As in most of the world, most of this waste ends up in landfills.  Globally, some 73% of all MSW is either landfilled or dumped in open pits.  Without landfill gas capture, these sites are notorious producers of methane gas (CH4), a greenhouse gas nearly 64 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2).

Waste-to-Energy (WTE) technology, which can extract the valuable energy contained in waste streams for the production of electricity and heat, offers an attractive alternative.  WTE facilities, the bulk of which are combustion plants, currently treat an estimated 205 million tons of MSW a year in urban areas worldwide.  This represents just 11% of the MSW treated around the world in 2011.  Nearly 40% of global WTE capacity is currently concentrated in the EU, which has been the outright leader in waste management and landfill diversion.

The growth of megacities in China and elsewhere presents an important opportunity for the bioenergy industry, which, as I discussed in an earlier post, is on the hunt for low-cost feedstocks for renewable power and oils.  As a number of advanced thermal early stage companies have recognized – Plasco Energy and Greenlight Energy Solutions on the power side; Enerkem, Fulcrum Bioenergy, and Solena Group for fuels – MSW is a vastly underutilized resource and low-hanging fruit option in the advanced feedstock pool.  Available at negative cost – companies get paid to process the waste – MSW can address many of the challenging obstacles associated with bioenergy feedstocks, including high cost, aggregation, and proximity to end markets. 

Facing an avalanche of garbage, China is on the march to expand installed WTE capacity, and could be followed by Brazil, India, and other developing countries if sufficient political and economic will materializes.  Already proving to be particularly adept at large-scale infrastructure build-outs, China is projected to increase its existing capacity base by at least 250% over the next decade.  The country already accounts for 14% of global WTE capacity today.  That number could grow significantly over the coming decade.


IBM Tackles Transport Snarls in China

— March 1, 2012

IBM has announced its first major customer for the Intelligent Transportation solution it introduced last year. The project is with the Chinese city of Zhenjiang, where IBM is working with the local municipality to deliver an integrated transport management system as part of the “Smarter Zhenjiang, Smarter Tourism” project. Zhenjiang is a city of 3 million people in eastern China and is an important regional hub situated near the Yangtze River and the Grand Canal.

The new system is based on IBM’s Intelligent Operations Center for Smarter Cities (IOC) and will provide a real-time picture of the city’s traffic network with the aim of alleviating congestion, improving traffic management, and providing a better travel experience for citizens and visitors.

A core component of the project is a bus scheduling system that will help increase the efficiency of public transportation. The system will help Zhenjiang manage over 1,000 public transportation vehicles, over 80 city bus routes and 400 upgraded bus stations. A sensor system will collect data from smart devices in buses and bus stations and feed these to the IOC, where the data will be analyzed to help transit personnel adjust bus routes, frequencies, and bus station locations.

IBM China Research Laboratory is working with the city to create what it calls a Transit Route Network Optimization Planning System (TOPS). TOPS will provide a simulation platform for transit fleet and passenger flow on the network. It will draw on a variety of historical and real-time data sources and use predictive analysis to enable proactive management of the transport and transit system.

Amidst the stream of smart city project announcements, this one stands out for a number of reasons.

First, the project is concrete evidence of how China is looking to smart solutions to address the challenges of urban growth. Most analysis of the smart city market, including our own, presumes that China will eventually be at the forefront of smart city development, but to date, actual projects on anything approaching city-scale have been thin on the ground so far. Our report, Smart Cities, identified transport as the segment of the market where Asia, and particularly China, would grow fastest because of the impact of congestion on economic growth and sustainability. According to IBM, China is building more public transit systems than the rest of the world combined, and the country can’t cope with its rising transport demand without more intelligent management.

Second, the project builds on and develops some key innovations in transport management. This will be a state-of-the art system that not only monitors congestion but also uses predictive analytics to proactively manage traffic flows – through the routing of buses to meet demand and avoid bottlenecks, for example. Based on its work with Singapore and other cities, IBM claims its systems can now predict congestion build ups between 5 and 30 minutes ahead of problems arising, allowing traffic managers to take mitigating action.

Third, this is an early vindication for IBM of its IOC model for city management. The base of the system is the IOC platform, customized to meet the needs of the city and enhanced with the new capabilities being developed by its research arm in China.  IBM has the opportunity to build a positive feedback loop as innovations made in Zhenjiang feed back into the solution set and make it even more relevant to the issues facing other cities.


E-Trains and Energy Storage

— February 28, 2012

One of the most promising aspects of energy storage is that it’s used to make an existing system more efficient.  If you think of the grid as the system, then energy storage can help make generation, transmission, distribution, and even customer energy use more efficient.

How many different systems are there? The grid is the most obvious example.  Microgrids are another type of system.  A more relevant system to the average consumer is a transportation system.  And there are several examples of companies in the energy storage space targeting transportation systems.

How does it work? An energy storage system (specifically, a battery) is paired with an electricity-powered train system; the battery captures the energy from regenerative braking, just as the battery in a hybrid-electric vehicle does (which is part of the reason why these vehicles have high gas mileage).  In the case of transportation systems, the battery is situated not on the train itself, but at a station the train travels through.

Hitachi is supplying two 1 megawatt lithium ion battery systems to the Seoul Metro in Korea, after successfully trialing what the company calls the B-CHOP system in a train station in Kobe, Japan.  In this case, the batteries will collect energy from passing (and braking) trains and use that energy to run other electric trains on the system.  The goal is to reduce the overall energy consumption of the electric trains passing through the station.

NGK Insulators has also installed several sodium sulfur battery systems at rail stations in Japan, although it is not clear whether these systems are being used to capture energy from the braking trains themselves, or to manage how much the stations and trains are taxing the grid.  A subtle difference in applications, but an important one.

SEPTA (Philadelphia) is trialing a battery from SAFT at a busy rail station and is using it to store and release energy. The transport agency is also partnering with Viridity Energy (also based in Philadelphia) to participate in demand response programs and the and frequency regulation market.  Thankfully for SEPTA, PJM Interconnection – the independent system operator for the region – is one of the most progressive system operators in the country and allows even relatively small assets (like a modestly sized battery) to participate in the frequency regulation market.  Programs like these could make railways and urban transit systems even more efficient ways of transporting large numbers of people.


Using Data to Drive Urban Transformation

— February 1, 2012

As I mentioned in my last smart city blog, one of the biggest challenges to realizing the smart city vision is finding financial models that can enable the transformation in city operations.  This recent Climate Group report highlighted the opportunity offered to cities through better exploitation of one of their most critical and under used assets: data.  The most obvious use of city data is for the city authorities and service providers to become better at collecting, analyzing and acting on information about how the city works.  While public sector organizations – not only city authorities – have gone a long way in creating modern IT-based front- and back-office organizations, they have generally been much slower than the private sector to use the power of data analysis to understand how to improve those processes.  This is now changing, and city authorities are beginning to understand the power of data analytics.  But even with cloud computing and software-as-a-service models helping to reduce costs and speed up deployment, data analytics and advanced information management systems still involve a significant upfront investment, and payback depends on finding efficiencies and improvements in services.  A more radical – but complementary – approach is to open the data to third parties to allow them to provide new services and new insights.  This is one reason why cities are at the forefront of the movement for open government data.

The momentum behind open government data gained significant impetus with the release of President Obama’s “Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government” in January 2009.  This paved the way for the launch of in May 2009, a web portal that today provides almost 400,000 raw and geospatial datasets and more than 1,000 web apps.  The U.K. government launched in April 2010.  Both the U.N. and the World Bank are now working to encourage governments around the world to adopt open data policies.  As well as spurring innovation, opening up government data is seen as a means for tackling corruption, increasing transparency and improving accountability.  In July 2011, Kenya became the first developing country to have an open government data portal.

Trying to put specific value on such data is difficult, but a report from the European Commission suggests that opening up public-sector information could be worth up to €140 billion (almost $200 billion) to the EU economy each year.  Cities have been among the most proactive governments promoting the possibilities for open data.  In the United States, cities like San Francisco, New York, and Chicago have launched open data portals, as have London and Barcelona and Helsinki.  A number of cities have also launched developer events and competitions to encourage the creation of new applications that can then be made available on the city website.

Transparency, Accountability

So why is this important to the development of the smart city concept? Most importantly, opening up data to new uses is a way of refreshing our ideas about the city: how it works and how it could work better.  It also frees up the potential for further exploitation of new technologies such as smartphones and sensor networks.  Open data can also provide a boost to the city as center for software development and other digital industries, as the Mayor of New York has recognized with his promotion of NYC Digital.

Chicago provides a good example of what can be achieved.  In January, the city launched a new web site, Chicago Shovels, which keeps residents informed in real-time about the activity of the city’s snow ploughs when the blizzards hit.  In future, it will provide space for coordinating community-based snow-clearing teams.  It also provides additional applications developed by third-parties using the city’s open data sets., for example, alerts drivers of winter parking bans, while uses the City’s towed and relocated vehicle data to reconnect owners with their cars.  Sites like Chicago Shovels are not just providing new services, they are also making new aspects of a city’s operation transparent.

The CTO of Chicago has written an excellent blog on the city’s open data platform.  In the post he describes the four principles that have driven the program: transparency, accountability, analysis, and open data.  Looking to the future, he also talks about the emerging concept of the “city-as-platform” – an idea I will examine in more detail in my next blog.


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