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Is CHP becoming a more attractive proposition for EfW plants?

Malcolm Chilton

With pressure for local authorities to reduce the amount of household and commercial waste sent to landfill, it is no surprise that they are investigating alternative solutions to deal with waste. Energy from Waste is a technology that has grown and improved over the last few years and is recognised as a sensible and sustainable solution to deal with the UK’s waste.  

Indeed, while EfW technology is advancing, a key focus of government policy work is to look at how Energy from Waste facilities are able to operate consistently as Combined Heat and Power (CHP) facilities. CHP enabled EfW plants frequently have much higher efficiency levels as opposed to fossil fuel powered plants and have the capability to lower costs of heating, as well as electricity, to local homes and businesses in the vicinity of the plant’s location. This is achieved by capturing the excess heat from the Energy from Waste process and using it to feed steam and hot water into the district heating systems.   

The last few years have seen positive steps encouraging the implementation of EfW plants able to operate in CHP mode. These steps include increasing the payments for CHP EfW projects under the Renewables Obligation, in addition to naming CHP as an eligible technology in the Renewable Heat Incentive, which is due to be introduced in April 2011.

Further to these forms of support there have been a number of additional, and sometimes local, initiatives developed to promote the use of CHP technology. Perhaps the most significant of these is the ambitious London Thames Gateway Heat Network that is being promoted by the Mayor of London through the London Development Agency. At the heart of this project is an attempt to develop an extensive district heating network to serve a range of potential customers including residential, industrial and commercial users.

Given the uniquely dense nature of development in the east of London where this project is located and the strong mix of potential business customers for heat, this project may well work. But it is not a model that can be replicated easily in many other parts of the UK as there are a number of significant barriers such as:

  • Strong zonal planning which means that residential and industrial uses increasingly are separated.
  • Lack of in-built piping networks because of historic patters of development and the very high infrastructure costs of retrofitting such networks.
  • The variability of, in particular, domestic demand for heat.

If CHP technology is to be widely deployed in the UK, it is clear that a better model will be required to enable this. A crucial element will be to look to exploit the increasing requirement for important industrial users to access long-term power contracts that give good guarantees of stable supply and (as far as possible) protection from the very significant increases in energy prices that are forecast for the future. This will be important for process industries in particular where very intensive energy use can often be the most significant cost factor relative to the value of products. We have already seen a number of energy intensive industries start the search for alternative fuel sources, including wastes. Indeed, it is natural that a source such as a CHP enabled EfW facility would act as a honey pot  for investment of this nature.

Malcolm Chilton is managing director at Covanta Energy

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