2014 waste to energy: Boom or bust?

Written by: RWW | Published:

The waste to energy marketplace has continued to experience ups and downs throughout 2013. What opportunities are there for WtE to earn its place as a valued part of the UK’s resource agenda in 2014? Chris Oldfield, managing director, UNTHA UK, investigates.

The waste to energy market has, perhaps as expected, continued to attract advocates and adversaries throughout 2013. Of the supporters, it is unlikely that anyone would regard refuse derived fuel (RDF) and solid recovered fuel (SRF) as panaceas. Recovery is, after all, just above landfill in the waste hierarchy and of course the focus should be on reducing the amount of waste produced in the first place. However, it is important that the role of RDF and SRF, as valuable resources, is more widely acknowledged.

Ever mounting landfill charges and growing sustainability consciences mean UK organisations are becoming increasingly discerning about their waste management strategies. Traditional disposal methods are no longer affordable and more importantly, they are not acceptable either. So why is the UK not harnessing the capabilities of sophisticated WtE technologies that can transform our ‘rubbish’ into a resource?

Of course funding - or the lack of it - is significantly limiting our evolution. 

For instance, the progress of the extensively deliberated Allerton Park EfW plant in North Yorkshire, was rocked in February 2013 when Defra withdrew £65m of PFI credits. While the journey of this plant is not over, this was the last thing the team needed, having worked relentlessly to convince local campaigners that the facility can provide a sustainable long term energy solution for the region.

Indeed, public opinion has no doubt greatly influenced the UK’s lack of WtE ‘uptake’. 

Far too many people believe that ‘dirty RDF production’ undermines the efforts that households and businesses go to, in order to recycle and support the waste hierarchy. However, better education and communication surrounding RDF and SRF (incidentally two very different substances) would illustrate that the industry does work hard to recycle as much as is economically and environmentally possible. Studies have also found that WtE does not adversely affect recycling rates. 

Next level of waste hierarchy

What people need to realise is that it is not possible to recycle everything, especially contaminated commodities. Soiled paper that has gone into the general waste stream, for instance, cannot realistically be recycled. It must therefore progress to the next level of the hierarchy, and this is where WtE provides an alternative solution.

In continental Europe, WtE facilities are considered a valued part of the community. 

They are assets to be proud of, not taboo subjects. Many even have education centres that teach local schoolchildren about the energy production process and the importance of living a sustainable life. 

The advanced mind-set of our European neighbours, and the fact that they began investing in waste to energy technologies years ago, goes some way to explaining why significant demand exists for more RDF than they can get their hands on locally.

The export of RDF from the UK is therefore proving common. Only three years ago in 2010, RDF exports were low. However last year the level of RDF exported to overseas countries such as Latvia, Denmark and the Nordic nations, rocketed to just under one million tonnes. Great debate has followed in 2013, as to the ethicality and commercial viability of this UK export practice.

The EU constitution says it is desirable that each member state deal with its own waste, and indeed RDF should not be viewed as something solely for overseas use. There are reportedly over 26 million tonnes of RDF/SRF potential in the UK and Ireland, which should be being used in place of fossil fuels in our own country. This would save money on domestic energy costs and producers would avoid transportation and export fees too.

However, until the country’s ‘throw away’ mentality changes completely, and while our thermal treatment capabilities take time to fully take shape, RDF export surely provides a sensible interim practice. It is a helpful diversion deliverable, which is very important when landfill capacity is becoming depleted and stringent EU targets are looming. 

Need for SRF quality standard

The 2013 debates surrounding RDF export have also brought the issue of quality to the fore. Very few people would dispute the need for a quality standard when it comes to SRF production. SRF is, after all, a refined resource manufactured to a defined specification. 

Typically, SRF producers will rigorously process pre-sorted C&I waste to a homogenous shredded particle size of less than 30mm, with a moisture content <15% and calorific value of 18-22MJ/kg. Failure to meet this specification would mean that end customers such as cement kilns and paper mills simply would not accept the fuel.

RDF, on the other hand, is a comparatively crude material. It is not produced to the same strict criteria because end users do not have equivalent quality requirements. What many RDF exporters have failed to realise however, is that by adopting a more methodical approach to manufacturing, it is possible to achieve an additional revenue stream and improved production margins.

It all boils down to the fact that there is wealth in waste and at present valuable revenue-generating recyclates such as metals are being shipped abroad along with the RDF. So while the export of our energy resources may be a helpful interim solution for the UK, the export of our profits is nonsensical. 

Rather than focus on the short term gain of export revenues, RDF manufacturers should assess the efficiency of their production process, just as SRF producers do. Steps can be taken to separate and extract recyclables that can be sold, and the reduction of other manufacturing ‘waste’ such as labour or machine downtime, can also increase profitability. 

Furthermore, TransFrontier Shipment (TFS) regulations prohibit the export of ‘untreated’ MSW, and in truth, many RDF exports will have been very close to just that. 

Non-compliance is something that no RDF manufacturer can afford, so the production process should be analysed to ensure it falls within the right side of the law.

In summary, waste to energy has revolutionised the way that many European countries have tackled their sustainability agendas, and the time is now ripe for the UK to improve too. For this to happen however, a more strategic alignment is needed between the country’s waste, energy and resource policies. The government’s attitude towards domestic RDF usage for instance is that it is simply a waste treatment technique, not an energy source. 

However it has been widely reported that 50% of the material within RDF can be classed as renewable. We should be making better use of our own rubbish, especially at a time when raw materials are scarce. 

Growing buzz

2014 will by no means be a radical year. Three years ago people thought that defined progress would perhaps take five years, whereas realistically the timescale will be more like 10. 

However, the buzz surrounding WtE is growing. Industry professionals are talking, sharing ideas and creating an impetus, which in turn promotes best practice, raises the profile of WtE and ensures more people sit up and listen to what needs to be done. 

The next 12 months should see the UK take further, albeit perhaps small, steps in the right direction.

Chris Oldfield is taking part in an industry discussion at the Energy from Waste Conference on 26-27 February, which considers the development of the RDF/SRF market in the UK and internationally.

See www.efwlondon.eu for further details

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