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Getting EfW back on track in the UK

Recent stories in MRW would suggest that the development of energy-from-waste (EfW) plants is beset with difficulty. But those in the sector say the reality is quite different. While companies developing such facilities admit there are hurdles to overcome, they say this by no means points to a trend away from EfW as a solution for dealing with the country’s waste and, importantly, energy needs. Most developers stress that there is an important role to be played by EfW facilities, and that more need to be built for the technology to become better accepted as a means of waste treatment.

One of the viewpoints of the anti-incineration camp is that developers will increasingly face difficulty when it comes to financing new EfW facilities, most notably because of a predicted shift away from Private Finance Initiative (PFI) funding. But those involved in developing such plants see this shift as a positive one.

Energos managing director Nick Dawber says: “The country needs more facilities built on a normal basis without PFI, because we need to get more plants and the PFI process just slows things down. I don’t see how we can claim PFI is value for money because of the risks involved. It is very different to building a hospital or a school and people are having to pay for that risk premium.”

This view is shared by others in the industry. Viridor director of EfW Richard Turner explains: “Although the technology may be bankable, PFI is very expensive for the client.”

“Existing plants work efficiently, and the communities that live around them do not have any issues and co-exist quite happily”

A move away from PFI will encourage local authorities to procure solutions that represent better value, according to Covanta Energy managing director Malcolm Chilton. “I don’t really see the big need for PFI in this sector because it tends to encourage people to go for more expensive solutions,” he says. “PFI is going to be more difficult, so councils are going to have to focus on procuring value for money more than they have done in the past.”

Most developers admit that financing new EfW facilities, even outside the PFI process, is far from easy. But they insist this must not be seen as a barrier and will not stop them from pushing ahead with new facilities. Chilton believes that if facilities offer value for money, there should not be any major problems with financing.

He explains: “Our approach is to offer value by building large facilities that more than one council may use, and they will usually also take in commercial and industrial waste too. We see the current focus on cost as being long overdue because we can’t see any reason for spending more money than necessary.”

Dawber shares the view that bank financing may be difficult to obtain but this should not be seen as a barrier to further development: “Banks would rather lend to risk-free projects, so you need different methods of financing. We get some bank finance but the level of equity that developers need to put in themselves will increase. This will be difficult for some owners but that’s not to say it will be impossible.”

The industry agrees that, apart from finance issues, the biggest barrier to the development of new EfW and other waste plants is the planning process.

Chilton says: “Getting planning permission for any sort of waste facility is proving to be difficult in some areas. A lot of people are opposed to incineration for all sorts of reasons. Considering that local members are elected, it is not really a surprise that they will respond to widespread local opposition.”

This sentiment is shared by Turner who explains that, following Viridor’s application being turned down in Avonmouth, it then got the green light for a similar facility in Cardiff Bay. “There is really no reason we can see for why some applications get approved while others get turned down,” he says.

“The reality is that these decisions are rarely made on planning issues. If a plant is turned down for environmental or health reasons, these are supposed to be dealt with by the Environment Agency (EA) and not planners. The decisions seem to be down to fairly random political whim.”

There is concern in some quarters about Government proposals to overhaul the planning system with more emphasis on localism. Turner says: “Invariably there will be problems with localising the planning process in the future because the main opposition which exists to these sorts of facilities is always at a local level.”

But Chilton is of the opinion that this will not have an effect on the development of large-scale facilities because they will be considered part of the national infrastructure plan and not governed by local planning decisions.

“The Infrastructure Planning Commission, or whatever it is transformed into, is destined to get around this issue because although the views of local people are taken into account, they are not as strongly considered in terms of the national interests. This will be used for the planning of larger facilities and they go through a slightly different planning process,” he says. “So, from our perspective, the idea of having larger facilities is a positive one, and I don’t think that larger facilities will have a problem proving that there is a need for them.

“The diversion of waste from landfill is a useful additional factor. But by far the most important thing about EfW is that the power needs of this country have become so complex that the need for such facilities becomes increasingly a central infrastructure issue. EfWs are needed to provide power infrastructure for the whole country.”

Dawber believes that local opposition is almost inevitable when wanting to develop such facilities, but this should not be seen as a barrier. “There is a lot of local opposition and there always will be,” he says, “but there is a balance to be struck. People would be a lot more accepting of small facilities because of reduced concerns about traffic concerns and the like, but that is not always possible or practical. So there need to be both large- and small-scale facilities and people will have to accept that.”

ANTI-INCINERATION VIEW

UK Without Incineration Network national co-ordinator Shlomo Dowen says:
“The EfW developments being scaled back or halted can now be considered part of a pattern. It must be said that there is definitely a connection between this trend emerging and the outcome of the general and local elections in May. The changes in terms of both the Government and the economy mean that such proposals will be looked at more carefully and authorities will start to consider more whether they are economically viable.

“You have got to remember that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are notoriously anti-PFI, so this will obviously have an impact on a lot of proposed facilities.”

At the recent Futuresource exhibition, waste management firm Sita conducted a survey asking visitors what they thought was the biggest barrier to developing new recycling and waste management facilities in the UK. Interestingly, 32% of those surveyed believed it was down to a lack of understanding about the need for new facilities, with a further 23% saying it was due to a lack of incentives for local communities.

Sita UK spokesman Anthony Durston says: “This survey provides an interesting snapshot of opinion. People connected to the recycling and waste management industry clearly appreciate the need to work more closely with members of the community if the industry’s long-term ambitions are to be achieved. And they clearly feel that a lot more education needs to be done to help bring members of the community along with them.”

This view is shared by Turner, who explains that people are opposed to EfW larely because of the association with incineration. He points out that an EfW incinerator is very different to the incinerator of 100 years ago, with rubbish being burnt for no reason, no harnessing of energy and clouds of smoke being released in to the atmosphere.

“EfW is a very different beast to plain incineration because we use the energy,” he says. “It is the same reason we don’t call a car an engine; an engine is only part of the car in the same way the incinerator is only part of an EfW plant. It is a very important part, because it is what makes it run, but there is more to it than simply burning waste and people need to understand that. We need to be better at using plants that are already working to educate people. Existing plants work well and efficiently, and the communities that live around them do not have any issues and co-exist quite happily. If people could see that, there might not be so much opposition.”

Chilton agrees that education could be a key barrier to overcoming people’s opposition. “People always come up with health issues as a reason for not building EfW plants, despite the fact that a Health Protection Agency report gave it a fairly good rating in terms of health risks. If people were more aware of this, perhaps there wouldn’t be such an issue.”

Turner adds: “There is obviously an element of risk involved. But there is an element of risk involved in anything, and if we were really concerned about risk then we would never even get in a car. There are all sorts of reasons people give for EfW facilities not being built, but the reality is that, if the EA does not have a problem with it, neither should anyone else.”

The industry is hoping that this issue will dampen as more EfW plants start operating. Turner says: “The more plants that come online, the easier it is going to be to get things through in the future because, gradually, people will become more accepting of EfW as being the norm. On the continent it is not such a big issue because people are used to it now. It is no accident that the countries with the highest recycling rates have high levels of EfW as well, and they go hand in hand. The ideal is to recycle as much as possible and then squeeze the energy out of what is left.”

Chilton says: “In European countries with high levels of EfW, I am sure that acceptance came after rather than before the facilities were built, which may not help us in the UK at the moment. But it does give us the confidence to know that what we are trying to do is right and that one day people will see that.”

A TREND IN STALLED EFW PROPOSALS?

MRW, 28 May: Doubts raised over three proposed EfW facilities in Hull, Coventry and Leeds because of financial concerns. Anti- incineration campaigners talk of a “trend” away from EfW as a waste treatment.
MRW, 4 June:
Bristol City Council blocks an application for a 350,000 tonne a year EfW facility proposed by Viridor.
MRW, 11 June:
Confirmation that the Coventry EfW project had been halted for the time being.

Also in the news:
Veolia Environmental Services’ plans to build an EfW plant in Rainworth, Nottinghamshire, has been twice postponed, while a public inquiry into an EfW facility proposed by Sita in Cornwall is set to resume.

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