Journal article

Towards a comprehensive greenhouse gas emissions inventory for biosolids

31 Mar 2016


  • Biogas electricity is the single largest carbon offset for land-applied biosolids.
  • This offset varies with primary-to-WAS ratio, SRT, sludge age and WWTP technology.
  • Transport impacts are smaller than total fugitive GHG emissions in the plant.
  • The fertiliser substitution offset depends on the use of total or available nutrient values.
  • Soil carbon sequestration credits are important for land-applied biosolids LCAs.

Effective handling and treatment of the solids fraction from advanced wastewater treatment operations carries a substantial burden for water utilities relative to the total economic and environmental impacts from modern day wastewater treatment. While good process-level data for a range of wastewater treatment operations are becoming more readily available, there remains a dearth of high quality operational data for solids line processes in particular. This study seeks to address this data gap by presenting a suite of high quality, process-level life cycle inventory data covering a range of solids line wastewater treatment processes, extending from primary treatment through to biosolids reuse in agriculture. Within the study, the impacts of secondary treatment technology and key parameters such as sludge retention time, activated sludge age and primary-to-waste activated sludge ratio (PS:WAS) on the life cycle inventory data of solids processing trains for five model wastewater treatment plant configurations are presented. BioWin® models are calibrated with real operational plant data and estimated electricity consumption values were reconciled against overall plant energy consumption. The concept of “representative crop” is also introduced in order to reduce the uncertainty associated with nitrous oxide emissions and soil carbon sequestration offsets under biosolids land application scenarios. Results indicate that both the treatment plant biogas electricity offset and the soil carbon sequestration offset from land-applied biosolids, represent the main greenhouse gas mitigation opportunities. In contrast, fertiliser offsets are of relatively minor importance in terms of the overall life cycle emissions impacts. Results also show that fugitive methane emissions at the plant, as well as nitrous oxide emissions both at the plant and following agricultural application of biosolids, are significant contributors to the overall greenhouse gas balance and combined are higher than emissions associated with transportation. Sensitivity analyses for key parameters including digester PS:WAS and sludge retention time, and assumed biosolids nitrogen content and agricultural availability also provide additional robustness and comprehensiveness to our inventory data and will facilitate more customised user analyses.

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