Energy-from-waste giant Covanta burns through data to create trusted information

Profile picture for user jtwentyman By Jessica Twentyman July 31, 2020
Summary:
Under Director of Data Analytics Charles Link, the company is building a robust ‘data supply chain’ for easier business decision-making

energy
(Dublin Waste to Energy )

The process of burning garbage in massive incinerators to produce electricity also kicks off a complex supply chain of other interesting and potentially lucrative byproducts. 

For a start, it creates a tremendous amount of steam. While some of this is used to drive the turbines that pump out electricity to local homes and businesses, the excess, if harnessed, can also be sold on as a source of power. 

Meanwhile, from the ash that remains after garbage is burnt, aggregates can be collected for use in the construction industry. This ash can also be a rich source of other recyclables, in the form of ferrous metals (steel, for example) and non-ferrous metals (such as aluminium). 

At New Jersey-based Covanta, executives claim that, each year, the company’s 40-plus energy-from-waste (EfW) facilities worldwide convert approximately 21 million tons of waste into power for over one million homes. The company also recycles some 500,000 tons of metal annually - enough to build nearly six Golden Gate Bridges and manufacture three billion aluminium cans. 

The EfW industry may attract a fair amount of controversy, but it’s booming. While some communities protest about having such facilities on their doorsteps, citing environmental and public-health concerns, many local landfill sites are close to full and emit damaging levels of greenhouse gas methane. Recent environmental regulation also favours EfW: take, for example, the EU’s target for member states to cap the amount of municipal trash they send to landfill at 10% by 2030. 

Recycling may be the ‘greener’ option, but programmes in the US and Europe have been dealt a double blow by China’s 2018 ban on waste imports, which has led to rising recycling costs, and then the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, which has seriously disrupted collection and processing schedules.  

 Building a robust data supply chain

Either way, for a business like Covanta, data is an essential ingredient in enabling it to run its EfW facilities – and the complex supply chain that results from its processes – as efficiently as possible, says director of data analytics Charles Link.

Link, who joined Covanta in December 2019, likes to think of his work in terms of building a robust ‘data supply chain’, which takes a raw material (data) and converts it into a consumable product (information) that business decision-makers can trust. As he explains it:

There’s a lot of effort and work that goes into providing information that employees can trust, that makes them feel confident about basing a decision on it - because the raw materials here, the data coming in off the source systems, is very rarely what’s needed to make that decision. The data needs to be processed, cleansed, transformed and grouped together. It may even be exposed to advanced analytics, based on technologies like machine learning and AI, which help propose an action employees might take or predict the likelihood of a disruption occurring. What I’m saying is that, along the data supply chain, there are a lot of levers that need to be thrown.

In order to throw those levers and coordinate this approach, Link has replaced Covanta’s previously somewhat piecemeal approach to business intelligence with the Talend Data Fabric, a suite of data integration and management tools. This includes a data catalog that has enabled Link to deploy a central hub - the Covanta Data Hub - that users visit to find trustworthy data, totally processed and ready for use. Talend Data Fabric, he says, was deployed in under four months. 

IoT, metals trading and more

Talend’s technology is helping the company to take a closer look at the running of its EfW facilities, which differ dramatically from traditional garbage incinerators in terms of their efficiency and their air-pollution control equipment. A lot of this is down to the Internet of Things (IoT); in other words, today’s EfW equipment is bristling with smart sensors. Says Link:

That means we have a phenomenal amount of IoT data coming off these technologically sophisticated processes, relating to temperature, steam pressure, vibration, air quality, all kinds of stuff. That data is incredibly important, not just in keeping EfW plants running in tip-top shape, but also ensuring worker safety. So a big focus for us as a data analytics team has been helping to optimize the operational efficiency of these facilities, which are complicated and expensive to run, in order to achieve optimal costs and minimal downtime.

The data supply chain approach also enables Covanta to mix and match its own internal data with information from outside sources. Take, for example, its sale of the metals recovered from ash:

To make a profit on that, it’s best to understand how best to time our interactions with the metals markets, based on external pricing data and other macro/micro economic factors. I’d say we’ve gotten pretty good at determining the best time to sell - or hold back on selling - certain types of metals coming out of our waste stream.

Link is pleased with what’s been achieved so far during his first year at Covanta - and there’s plenty more work ahead, he says. 

Weaving all this data, be it from the IoT or external sources with our own back-end data enables us to create a complete picture, which is really what building a data supply chain should be about. It’s my strong belief that the outcome for me and my team of any initiative we undertake isn’t data itself – it’s a business result. We are as invested in that business result as anybody else in Covanta, so trust in data is critical to us. I’m happy to say that there’s now a shared understanding across the company of what our data means and a confidence that it’s credible and ready to be put to use.