Conference review: Energy from Waste 2018 comes in from the cold

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
This year's EfW delegates battled elements to attend the record-breaking conference

This year's Energy from Waste Conference had delegates battling both the elements and misconceptions about the industry's achievements, but the overall sense was one of optimism

Plenty of forward planning is needed when organising a conference: fine-tuning the programme, selecting the best speakers and ensuring delegates get the most from the event. What was not drafted into the events diary was a battle against the combined efforts of the Beast from the East and Storm Emma.

Despite the unforgiving forecast, a record number of delegates attended last month’s Energy from Waste conference, with the venue at County Hall offering the perfect refuge as a place to network, learn and debate on the key issues in the EfW community.

With a wide programme which covered all parts of the sector: technical, regulatory and best practice, there was plenty to absorb, all guided by seasoned chair Ian Crummack, managing director of Cobalt Energy.

Throughout the two days, there was a relentless sense of optimism that despite controversy, failed projects and misconceptions, EfW has earnt its stripes in the UK. Speakers argued that the process offers a real alternative to battle the country’s ongoing waste issues. And the delegates who bravely battled the elements represented a real commitment to progress within the sector.

During the presentations, one large obstacle to EfW which became apparent was its public perception. Often the process is simplified down to simply ‘burning waste’, according to Professor Ian Arbon of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. He said: “We use humpty dumpty words with no meaning: waste, recycling, plastic, incineration. Waste is seen as a problem, with campaigns asking to ‘get it sorted’, rather than the resource that it is.”

Paul De Bruycker, president of the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants, agrees. He said: “People see us as the devil because we ‘burn’ waste, but that’s only a small part of the wider benefits we see from a sustainable waste stream. With most parts of the world still relying on landfill, real Waste to Energy plays an important role across the globe and offers an alternative to landfill.”

Circular economy potential

There was huge discussion surrounding EfW’s role in the circular economy. Was it an enabler on the path towards reaching a circular economy or does it play its own part? De Bruycker added: “Economy means value creation and the sector needs a lot of improvement to realise its circular economy possibility. [EfW] brings possibility for entrepreneurs, for investors, for everyone in the chain. There needs to be a move away from negative connotations of waste. At the moment, EfW capacities are unbalanced across Europe, but there would be no over- or under-capacity if we took capacity goals seriously.”

RWW contributor Maxine Perella chaired a lively panel on the changing face of the waste process and its circular economy potential. Andy Pike, of Cory Riverside, the location of the conference’s site visit, described how products of EfW contribute directly to the circular economy.

He said: “There’s plenty of untapped potential of UK waste, and it’s a shame that we’re either disposing it at landfill or exporting it as RDF to other countries. EfW is often accused of preventing recycling, but given that we recover so much from it – for example, incinerated bottom ash (IBA) – it’s no longer the case. All of the outputs from EfW outweigh the myth that we just burn everything and put this out of use.”

Stuart Hayward-Higham, technical development director at Suez, said the changing nature of EfW makes it suitable for the circular economy. He said: “EfW is definitely part of the system and plays an important role. It’s had to learn some hard lessons [with reference to failed projects] but we can’t just look at this from a black-and-white world.

“In the long-term transition, EfW will be made into chemicals and fuels in the future. There’s many ways to make fuels and EfW will have to adapt as technologies improve. There’s no point in having an ice factory when everyone uses fridges.”

There were further presentations on the residues of EfW, mainly IBA and APC, and the opportunities these offer to create closed-loop solutions, reaffirming EfW’s circular economy credentials.

Successful project delivery

As well as economics, finance and business issues, the conference also looked at operational aspects of successful EfW delivery. It’s no secret that the UK has witnessed a series of failed EfW projects, for many complex and convoluted reasons. However, with comparisons to Europe’s thriving Waste-to-Energy market, the conference looked at how to move forward with the lessons learnt.

Sessions covered aspects including how to build contracts that last, using data to improve efficiency and performance and examples of best practice. Mark Ramsay, principal consultant at Ricardo, argued the key to a successful project is a good contract. He said: “What makes a good contract is one that allows for long-term change – a contract which allows changes in infrastructure, waste companies and best practice.”

Chair of the discussion James Snape of CMS said that most of the problems can be solved by using a mediator. “You have to make sure each partner knows exactly what they are signing up for and remember the basic principles of building a good contract: facts and objectivity.”

Delegates also heard about the many opportunities EfW can offer the UK, which included a best practice example from our northern neighbours in Scandinavia. Crispin Matson from Ramboll delivered a presentation on how heat networks in Copenhagen are combining with large EfW plants and other sustainable sources to create an efficient source of energy for the capital.

Jarno Stet from Westminster Council gave an impassioned speech about his borough and the challenges it faces as one of the busiest areas of the country, filled with both residual and commercial waste. He said: “We’re very dependent on Energy from Waste, and although it’s not appreciated by lots of people, for us it’s a lifeline where Energy from Waste allows us to bring the impact of residual waste down.”

Policy pointers

Woven into the fabric of all conversation when discussing the future, Brexit proved to be an expected focal point. Given the European feel to the conference, and with many delegates coming from mainland Europe, questions understandably began to rise over the UK’s somewhat uncertain future.

Plenty of speakers touched on the topic, often to ponder over what the regulatory landscape might look like. Some predicted that the UK will take its cues from the European market, while others argued it may revert to World Trade Organization rules without a customs market. Reflecting the mood across the river in Parliament, the conference’s speakers and delegates were unable to come up with a concrete conclusion, once again leaving uncertainty as the only certainty when it comes to Brexit.

Perhaps the boldest presentation came from Environmental Services Association (ESA) executive director Jacob Hayler, who had plenty to say on policy and government intervention.

“The misconceptions about Energy from Waste are still prevalent among policy-makers, and the health arguments are still not put to bed. Following the ESA’s commissioned Tolvik report findings, all but the most extremely high recycling rates are still at severe risk of under-capacity for Energy from Waste.”

Hayler also used his platform to challenge the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, arguing that plastic-free aisles and zero avoidable waste targets, “whatever that means”, will not deliver a solution to the treatment capacity gap.

He said: “As an industry, we are hoping for investment in Energy-from-Waste facilities. We need some bold interventions accompanied by appropriate funding to make targets a reality – current policy will deliver current outcomes. We need to overcome the anti-EfW brigade, build more plants and see long-term policy and clarity.”

The Energy from Waste Conference 2018 covered all aspects of the sector, making sure that delegates could learn from past mistakes and best practice. It provided a platform to hear a range of views, statistics and predictions for the future, and served as a nod to what seems like real progress in the UK’s Energy-from-Waste sector. As conference chair Crummack summarised: “The more we talk, the higher our standards will be.”

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