The role of Energy from Waste is vital to fuel the future

Written by: Adam Read | Published:
SUEZ's EfW plant in Great Blakenham, Suffolk

As I have settled into my new role at SUEZ over the past 12 months, I have been fortunate to visit a number of flagship EfW plants in the sector, namely Cory’s Riverside site in London, Viridor’s Ardley site near Oxford, and SUEZ’s new sites in Suffolk, Wilton, Severnside and Cornwall.

These new sites have delivered much-needed residual waste treatment capacity for both municipal and commercial streams, which has been critical as the UK moves away from landfill in line with national and EU policy.

They have also had significant positive benefits in terms of generating electricity for the grid, and in some cases producing heat for local industrial users.

EfW under attack

As capacity has grown in the UK’s EfW sector, through increasing thermal and biological project inception and delivery, so too has media and political attention.

This year has seen the sector challenged by a range of stakeholders for limiting the growth of recycling and undermining efforts to drive towards a circular economy, while some politicians and campaign groups have challenged the particulate emissions and dioxin breaches from EfW.

These ‘attacks’ are not new and are, on the whole, well-intentioned, with most parties wanting a more sustainable, environmentally friendly waste and resource sector in the UK, but what they often fail to do is contextualise the situation fully.

Any number of energy recovery solutions outperform landfill when it comes to environmental measures and economic criteria, and as EU policy (and thus UK policy) is to drive materials away from landfill, energy recovery has successfully proven itself to be both a means of effective waste management and a means of generating much-needed energy or heat.

With failing global commodity markets, the closure of China’s doors, and increasing concerns about the quality of UK recyclate, EfW will continue to play an important role in managing the UK’s waste, for as long as is needed. As such we should embrace these technologies more fully, not criticise their size or look.

Both size and styling are things that can be decided locally during the development process, and should therefore not come under the remit of UK policy concerns.

At the conference in February you will hear from experts about siting new plants, community consultation and engagement activities spanning operators, agencies and the general public, which might help dispel some of the myths about getting EfW infrastructure through planning.

In particular I will be sharing the SUEZ experience of siting and planning our EfW facilities, and we will hear from campaigners who were anti our site in Suffolk initially, and why they are now advocates for the site and the technology in use.

The year has seen numerous reports issued considering the UK’s capacity needs, from the ESA and its Tolvik synthesis of all capacity reports written to date, to the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) and its Waste Assessment for England.

The NIC suggested that with higher recycling rates, mandatory food waste collections and a new eco-labelling system, millions of tonnes of residual waste treatment capacity would no longer be needed (the equivalent of 20 new EfW plants, it stated), which I found quite an emotive statement.

But the report did not go so far as to say how many new facilities were still required or where – further fuelling the fire of the campaigners.

Depending on which scenario you choose, we need anywhere between two and 80 new EfW plants; so which is it? Getting investors comfortable is one of the themes of the EfW Conference, including real-world examples of how we get investors on board being shared.

In the face of these increasing challenges, the UK continues to deliver EfW projects, and in 2019 SUEZ will deliver its first gasification plant in Surrey (60,000tpa) and will begin construction of a new line at Teesside (240,000tpa).

We are not alone in the sector with a number of new projects and technologies coming to market this year and next.

Where do the opportunities lie?

There is plenty of material today, tomorrow and in the near future that needs treatment instead of landfill. With Brexit looming, there could be 3Mtpa of RDF exports looking for a new home from 2020, and why should this material not be a fuel, power or heating feedstock for new UK-based EfW sites? That’s another ten to 15 sites in need of development.

Even with high recycling targets by 2025, the UK’s 4Mtpa of remaining residual waste will need to be treated, so let’s assume that is a further ten to 20 sites under development by 2025.

Even if we are conservative in our estimations, the UK will need an additional 15 EfW sites by 2025, which means the UK market will be pretty active from January onwards.

But the new sites, technologies and projects won’t simply be an extension of the sites we have today. Sites will be challenged more than ever before about local need and benefit, so public engagement is going to be critical for future site selection.

The drive from Europe and the UK government will be for higher thermal efficiencies, so these new projects will need heat offtake, which I hope will become a policy priority in 2019. Government should be enabling heat grids that can supply commercial and industrial sites with heat and power, with potentially a number of EfW sites or ‘lines’ working in tandem to ensure there is never a break in supply.

The UK policy direction is becoming even clearer. Greater resource productivity, enhanced recycling, waste prevention and the embedding of the circular economy in EC and UK law will mean that the opportunities of tomorrow will require further innovation.

The long-awaited Defra Resources and Waste Strategy has laid out a high-level direction of travel, which we will be able to hear much more about at the conference, while recognising that EfW has a role to play in the foreseeable future.

But we aren’t there yet and we will need a good 20 years of policy, investment, innovation and behaviour change before we are there, no matter how optimistic you are.

Which is why SUEZ refers to traditional EfW as a ‘transitional technology’. We believe that making better use of residual waste, as technical and economic circumstances permit, should be a goal for the whole industry.

It means that moving to syngas, to be used for power, or producing new fuels or chemicals, is an essential transition. And producing electricity (and heat) from residual waste in the longer term may not be as commercially attractive as some other green alternatives, so why use waste in these facilities?

EfW sites of the future could be much more focused on producing for specific end market needs, whether that be gas to grid, syngas for gas-powered vehicles, chemicals for manufacturing, or fuels for the airline sector.

We really hope that the UK government will confirm soon its priority end markets, aligned to its Green Growth Strategy, and the Resources and Waste Strategy so future technology innovation and investment can happen with those markets in mind.

But the future is clearly about waste to molecule, or chemicals from waste, which should be of interest to most of the audience in February 2019.

Almost all of the current and near-future EFW fleet will need major refurbishment or replacement by 2050, so there are clear opportunities for the market to move to these new technologies in a phased and planned manner when they are commercially viable.

The look and feel of the sector is both vibrant and innovative, which should make for a packed two-day event in February where you can get the latest thinking, examples, hopes and aspirations from policy-makers, industrialists, innovators and operators. Transition will bring opportunity, and we all like opportunity, don’t we?

Adam Read is external affairs director at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK.

The Energy from Waste Conference 2019 will return to etc. venues, County Hall on 27-28 February.

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