As the dust settles on last month’s Spending Review it appears plans to boost the generation of energy from waste remain high on the government’s agenda. Bernadette Redfern reports.
Last month’s Comprehensive Spending Review raised concerns that the coalition government is going
cold on energy from waste technologies.
It saw government funding pulled from six such schemes, on the grounds that they were “no longer needed to meet landfill diversion targets set by the European Union”.
Is the government losing its nerve? Until last month it had been nothing but encouraging, particularly towards anaerobic digestion, where methane rich biogas generated as bacteria breaks down organic matter, is used to generate heat and power. It liked it so much that in early July it held a round table discussion with industry to find out more about how to maximise this potential energy stream.
“The coalition government has pledged to be the greenest ever, and anaerobic digestion can help us achieve this goal. We’re getting straight to work with industry, farmers, the financial sector and other experts who can help make it a reality,” said climate change minister Greg Barker.
Barker’s comments built on earlier enthusiasm from energy minister Charles Hendry who told a Chatham House audience during a speech on sustainable energy security in June that: “We need a massive increase in energy from waste.”
If the government stands by these declarations then civil engineers with processing expertise and waste sector experience could be in high demand. Recycling and resource management firm Sita estimates that the country could see energy from waste technologies handling up to 35% of municipal waste, with 10% of this as anaerobic digestion.
“We have a fairly big task in diverting waste away from landfill in the next 10 years and we said we need to find £20 to £25bn to be where we need to be by 2020,” says technical director Stuart Hayward.
The drivers for such investment are plentiful, not least the aforementioned European legislation in the form of the Landfill Directive, which has compulsory targets for diversion of 65% of waste away from landfill and demands that 50% of waste is recycled or composted by 2020. In 2008/2009 England generated 27.3M tonnes of municipal waste, 12.2% of which was used for energy recovery, but there remains a long way to go to meet the EU targets.
“The coalition government has pledged to be the greenest ever, and anaerobic digestion can help us achieve this goal”
Greg Barker, climate change minister
This means more waste processing, and less waste dumping and regardless of whether it is recycling facilities, composting vessels or digesters, communities are going to need more infrastructure. In terms of creating energy from waste several technologies are available that use residual wastes that are not suitable for recycling as fuel. “At the heart of a waste to energy facility is something that is a furnace. All the plants built - except for two that are fluidised bed plants - use moving grate technology. The heat liberated is turned to steam and this drives turbines,” explains Viridor director of waste to energy Dick Turner. For CHP plants steam is also used for heating.
But getting permission to build energy from waste plants is often easier said than done. Despite stringent emissions criteria, local objections to such plants remain high. Waste management companies estimate that just one in three local waste facilities gains approval at planning committee stage.
Effective planning regime
“There is a major issue in terms of ensuring delivery through an effective and responsive planning regime,” says Viridor external affairs manager Dan Cooke.
The firm currently has three waste to energy plants in the planning process. All were rejected at committee stage but one of these, a combined heat and power plant generating 30MW of electricity in Cardiff, was overturned on appeal and received permission in July. A fourth project in Avonmouth, which included a 30MW CHP plant and a 150,000t per year recycling centre was rejected in June. “Three appeared to have officer support but were turned down by the planning committees. One of these was Cardiff but we now have permission through,” says Turner.
The successful appeal at Cardiff involved the addition of a planning condition that states that the plant will not take waste from outside the south east Wales area.
“There is a major issue in terms of ensuring delivery through an effective and responsive planning regime”
Dan Cooke, Viridor
The fact that most energy from waste plants are refused permission, at least first time round, makes it expensive for companies like Sita and Viridor to press ahead with projects and highlights concerns about decision making in local authorities.
“If you have a strong robust waste local plan that says you need these types of facilities in your area, then if people come forward with good projects in good locations that meet the plan then it should be a recipe for success,” says Hayward.
“I think at the moment the officers professional advice is not necessarily taken into account as much as it should be.
Waste experts say that more guidance from government on what projects should go ahead would help local authorities to make difficult decisions. “If the advisors come back and say this is a good project I think the government should give some weight to that in the committee, which should then have the confidence to accept that this weight of argument is substantial and that should reduce the number of refusals of planning officer’s recommended projects,” says Hayward.
26 planning consents
As part of Manchester’s giant £3.8bn PFI waste projects 26 planning consents were required for 42 waste processing facilities. The Viridor Laing joint venture is the delivery partner. “We delivered all 26 within a two-year period. It is possible with the right local political leadership. The plan had clear political support and this held firm so when the applications came forward there was plenty of scrutiny, but the authority showed leadership and helped deliver. It is about ensuring delivery rather than stepping back at the last minute and allowing short-term politicking to get in the way,” says Cooke.
For larger schemes over 50MW there is an alternative route to approval - the Infrastructure Planning Committee. Although this is being turned into the Major Infrastructure Planning Unit, it will still make recommendations on major projects within 12 months of applications being accepted. These recommendations will be used by the secretary of state to decide on whether or not to approve the project. “If they are above 50MW, which means about 600,000 to 700,000t of waste, it seems to be an easier process. If they could lower that threshold that would help, but that means changing the Energy Act,” says Turner.
On the technical side there are other issues to consider if anaerobic digesters are to become a key part of the waste management cycle; the main one being separating the organic matter from other waste streams.
“The source separation approach allows you the maximum freedom in how to use the material as a land improver or a fertilizer, if you do a mixed collection then you are a lot more constrained,” explains Hayward.
“That can be a separate truck, a truck with split bodies for example collecting glass and collecting food. Or it could well be things like the Swedish system called eco bags where domestic customers put food in a bag which goes in the dry recyclates and then at the materials recycling facility you separate the bags that contain the food into different containers. So there is quite a revolution yet to happen in the collection business before it understands how best to collect this material from customers,” he says.
Whether it is anaerobic digesters, CHP plant, material recycling centres or in vessel composting, the construction industry is expecting growth in infrastructure in the waste sector. Contractor Costain has grown its waste business in six years to an order book now worth more than £500M. It is also the construction partner to Viridor Laing on the Manchester project.
“We like to think we are ahead of the game. Other firms are trying to enter the sector but technology providers and owners are more interested in firms that have led the way,” says Costain business development director Stephen Wells.
Recruiters say the impact of staffing is already apparent. “Civil engineers with processing experience are in high demand,” says Tom Morris, managing director of waste management recruitment company TDM Executive. “There are not the skills in the UK to continue at the pace planned. We are seeing salaries of over £100,000 for senior level contractors. The pay now is 15-20% higher than it was in the boom times,” he says.
Expertise is more prevalent in European states such as Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark where energy from waste is more common.
But the UK is keen to catch up and although there are challenges to overcome, firms are keen to get on with building the infrastructure. With a little more help from central government, the UK could soon be catching up with more experienced European counterparts.