Ovidio Alfonso Elizondo
Director General
View from the Top

Monterrey, a Pioneer of Bioenergy Generation

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 09:19

The metropolitan area of Monterrey, the industrial heartland of Mexico, is formed by nine municipalities. One of these, San Pedro Garza García, is not only the richest municipality in Mexico, but in all of Latin America. With a population of 4.5 million – of which 4 million are concentrated in the Monterrey metropolitan area – the state of Nuevo Leon contributes to 7.5% of the national GDP, while Monterrey produces 1.2 million tonnes of waste a year.

SIMEPRODE (Integral System for Ecological Management and Processing of Waste) was created in 1990 with the goal of providing a solution to the disposal of the waste generated by Monterrey and the rest of the state. Its Director General, Ovidio Alfonso Elizondo, recalls the company originally found support at the highest level, since municipalities could not each afford their own landfill, making waste disposal a real problem. Currently, SIMEPRODE receives close to 4,500 tonnes daily across 13 landfills dotted throughout the state. Not keen on letting opportunities go to waste, the company began producing energy in one of its landfills in 2003. “We started producing 7MW from methane gas. The landfill kept growing and in 2007 we increased production to 12MW. Right now, we are at 17MW.”

Back in 2002, when SIMEPRODE was planning on building a bioenergy power plant, it partnered with SEISA Energy, another renewable energy firm based in Monterrey. The partnership has been very successful since SIMEPRODE manages the gas and leaves the operations to SEISA. Once the plant began operation, the state of Nuevo Leon became a pioneer in bioenergy production. The World Bank provided financing for the construction of the energy plant and, after the first phase was completed, it recognized SIMEPRODE and SEISA for preventing the emission of 46,280 tonnes of methane gas, the equivalent to 83,796 tonnes of CO2.

The energy production project did not have any significant social or political challenges, given the widespread positive reception it garnered, and became a nationwide example for waste management. However, the regulatory framework posed certain challenges, given the limitations it contained, with changes being needed to make the project profitable. “Previously, the law did not consider methane gas a renewable energy source, so there were legal obstacles that we had to overcome,” Elizondo says.

The firm’s main achievement in this regard was having methane gas considered as renewable, instead of a form of natural gas. Elizondo says the change in the legislation has facilitated many renewable energy projects by enabling them to become profitable and self-sustaining. In order to be granted the waste, SIMEPRODE has contracts with municipal governments but must also make sure to offer a cost competitive service. Elizondo claims a former governor of Nuevo Leon instructed the company to charge as little as possible to benefit the community. Currently, SIMEPRODE charges around MX$60 (US$5) per tonne, but turns a profit from its energy production. On the other hand, the project has also qualified for carbon credits, the sale of which has further enabled the company to support its facilities.

One of the difficulties of creating bioenergy is dealing with leachate, the pools of liquids in landfills that often contain dissolved or suspended materials that can be harmful. Elizondo explains leachate has to be dealt with carefully in order to keep gas production simple. “You need to build a cell to extract methane gas. You dig a hole, fill it with waste, compress it, encapsulate it using a membrane, cover it with dirt, and then you drill, as if you were extracting natural gas.” He notes that most Mexican landfills are not built properly, causing the gas to escape because it is not properly confined. “This is a matter of initial landfill planning,” he adds.

Elizondo notes that people are becoming more conscious about recycling and sorting. “There is more environmental awareness and we have a couple of school-oriented programs to foster such awareness.” The efforts have today borne fruit since the sorting plant is getting less material, meaning people are increasingly sorting their trash at home. “Recycling should be promoted everywhere, and it is a profitable activity. There are programs in which people receive customer points or other rewards in exchange for their recyclables, such as aluminum or cardboard.” Despite this downturn, the plant still processes around 800 tonnes of waste a day, of which 50 tonnes are recyclable products that are reincorporated into industrial processes.

SIMEPRODE’s work has gained national and international recognition, but although there have been attempts to replicate its processes in Ciudad Juarez and Aguascalientes, these have not proven fruitful to date. Elizondo believes that unlocking this success is a matter of working on confinement methods and expects that bioenergy production methods will eventually be replicated around the country. “We are open to the national and international community. We provide tours, information, consulting services, the complete package that interested parties need to develop similar projects,” he says and adds the company is currently focusing on expanding its energy production capacity to 24MW.

But where does the energy produced by SIMEPRODE- SEISA go? The energy feeds 80% of the public lighting of seven municipalities in the area, it powers lines I and II of Monterrey’s subway system, as well as the Palace of Government and other government offices. Not bad for 1.2 million tonnes of annual waste.