New energy-from-waste power stations are keeping millions of tonnes of rubbish out of landfill sites and bringing real benefits to communities. But one of the big operators argues that more needs to be done at a regulatory level to encourage the industry.
As the government and industry dither over building new nuclear capacity in the UK, a quiet revolution is taking place in the country’s energy from waste (EfW) sector. Whereas Britain has yet to see a single nuclear new build project emerge out of the ground this century, new energy recovery facilities (ERFs) - which transform post-recycling waste into energy capable of powering homes - have been appearing like daffodils in spring.
Viridor, one of the UK’s largest recycling and renewable energy companies, is responsible for opening five such new facilities in the space of the last 12 months. Two more are well through construction and two further projects have just started.
In a move symbolic of its transition from its roots as a landfill and collections business to one focused on enhanced recycling technologies and energy recovery, it recently locked the doors of its Ardley landfill site near Bicester after 35 years of operation.
The 300,000t of waste that would normally have been buried underground at Ardley annually would have filled Wembley Stadium. This will now be transferred to the company’s new £205M ERF - one of the most advanced in Western Europe - adjacent to the site. There, it will be used to generate enough renewable energy to power 38,000 homes.
In the last three months the company also completed commissioning of the UK’s largest ERF and combined heat and power plant at Runcorn, taking waste from Greater Manchester. The facility, consisting of two separate phases, is able to treat up to 850,000t of waste fuel each year, generating up to 70MW of electricity and up to 75t/hour of steam for exclusive use by industrial partner Ineos ChlorVinyls.
Together with their sister facilities at Trident Park in Wales and Exeter, the sites represent an investment of over £900M by the company in advanced energy recovery technologies over the past 12 months. This amounts to a total 1M.t of landfill diversion capacity to the UK. When complete, Viridor’s generation capacity will be 380MW, about a third of the output of Sizewell B. This will come from the ERF’s, landfill gas, anaerobic digestion and solar energy plant.
“We are getting better and better and our spend rate is similar to that of a nuclear plant”
Alan Cumming, Viridor
It is precisely this level of action that encouraged Viridor UK director of capital projects, Alan Cumming, to abandon a career delivering nuclear projects to join the ERF revolution.
“I came out of nuclear where I was just fed up with the snail’s pace at which it was moving,” says Cumming.
“I am confident that new nuclear will arrive, but in the meantime I wanted to get things built - at Viridor we’re building huge plants safely and we’re creating a pathway for the really big power stations that will come through at a later stage.”
Cumming thinks the company is playing an important role in upskilling the workforce in the UK. It has invested £1.5bn in ERFs that are either operational or in construction across the UK.
So far this programme has created 3,000 construction jobs and supported 250 new professional and skilled operations jobs.
Viridor has called on the new government to regulate and support the recycling and energy from waste industries more consistently.
It wants the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to:
- Provide clarity and structure in government policy around recycling and energy from waste
- Create an Office of Resource Management (OfRes)
- Regulate to make “waste” a fourth utility thus bolstering the circular economy and tackling waste crime
- Deal with the legacy of Britain’s landfill sites
- Address the uncontrolled export of Britain’s refuse derived fuel (RDF)
“We’re developing contractors on the back of these jobs to the extent that their next step up will be to the next scale of power stations,” he says.
“We’ve learned lessons about the best way to deliver these large power projects in the UK. The projects are coming in with world class safety records, on time and on budget. We are getting better and better and our spend rate is similar to that of a nuclear plant. “
One of these lessons includes breaking up packages of work to spread it among medium-sized contractors.
“The major supersized contractors that Europe has got just don’t exist in the UK. I think there’s a huge capability in the UK that we’re taking and developing, utilising small to medium-sized contractors and suppliers.”
Cumming argues that another benefit of energy from waste is that it ties in with the newly-elected government’s decentralisation agenda as well as the engineering community’s broader objective of creating smart cities. One example of the former is the work being undertaken to help develop district heating solutions with local authorities.
“Communities want to become more self-sufficient,” says Cumming. “Rather than putting their waste in a hole and covering it up, we’re turning it into a resource.
“Rather than putting their waste in a hole and covering it up, we’re turning it into a resource”
Alan Cumming, Viridor
“In fact, ‘waste’ is a very dated word; in addition to enhanced recycling, refuse derived fuel (RDF) is a real indigenous resource and we’ve got to try to make the most of it.”
In spite of these synergies with the new administration’s thinking, however, Cumming is concerned by the regulatory environment for EfW and hopes the new Conservative government will try to do more to encourage the circular economy.
He says that the austerity agenda and efficiency savings imposed on frontline waste services by local authorities mean there has been a 3% year-on-year rise in contamination of recycling collections making it harder to derive value. This, combined with a collapse in commodity prices for recycled materials and a rise in waste crime is conspiring to make a “perfect storm”, threatening the feasibility of recycling.
“Our biggest policy ask over the next decade is for the Government to set up an Office for Resource Management (OfRes),” says Cumming.
“Our chief executive, Ian McAulay, himself a civil engineer coming from the water and energy sector, wants to see the waste sector move towards becoming a fourth utility sector, properly regulated, with mass consolidation, standards and international class facilities.”
An example of the government’s confused current stance on EfW is the fact that the UK is exporting increasing amounts of its energy requirements to Europe in the form of refuse derived fuel (RDF). In 2014, over 2.3M.t of RDF was exported from England and Wales at a cost of £227M, a valuable resource that could generate enough energy to power nearly 400,000 homes, or 1.5% of the country’s energy requirements.
Meanwhile, the country is importing biomass such as wood chip fuel for power stations from as far away as the United States.
Importing the latter can hardly be seen as the most environmentally-friendly of policies, because of the embodied energy in it. Cumming says this represents a Jekyll and Hyde policy of lost opportunities for UK energy security, jobs and investment.
The firm also wants to see UK governments tackle waste crime and deal with the legacy of Britain’s landfill sites.
“At the moment there are a number of small operators who aren’t able or willing to meet the stringent environmental requirements of a rapidly changing sector,” says Cumming.
“Whereas most of the larger companies take their responsibilities seriously, others may not.” He adds that DEFRA are consulting about landfill at the moment which is a positive step.
“In short, we are at an inflexion point and face a stark choice - further success in recycling and resource security or substantial failure and wasted opportunities.”
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