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Keep the lights on

The public’s environmental awareness has come a long way in recent years. As recycling in the home and at work has become simpler, and more schemes have rolled out, recycling rates have risen dramatically as “doing your bit” has become important to our society. But even though we are all recycling more stuff more often, there is little thought given to the residual waste left in the bin. If you were to ask an average member of the public what happens to their rubbish, very few will be able to say where it goes or how it is treated.

Often when I explain the concept of energy from waste (EfW) technologies to people outside the industry, the response I get is “what a great idea - generating energy from stuff that would otherwise be sent to landfill”. But if you add that a plant may be built near their town, the response often changes. Even though we all understand the need to deal with our waste, and the need for renewable energy, very few people are happy for the facilities to be constructed near their homes.

This short-sighted attitude, along with the accompanying fear of lost votes for local councillors, is one of the main challenges the UK faces in the development of infrastructure to meet its renewable energy requirements. It is especially confusing when you consider that there are many such plants operating safely and efficiently within urban locations across the UK and Europe which no longer cause the batting of local eyelids.

The Government does a lot to promote the development of renewable energy, wind and solar being the main recipients. Yet EfW, a technology proven across the globe and a good, constant source of base-load energy, given that it does not rely on the elements, seems to receive scant attention.

“We need to lobby enthusiastically at all levels to gain some sanity in the planning process and some measure in public perception”

Let’s reflect a little. As an industry, we have changed dramatically in recent times. Businesses have reinvented themselves, investing in the development of new business models and modernising company culture to become resource managers and renewable energy providers rather than just bin men, scrap merchants and land-fillers.

As an industry, we have invested time and money in recycling schemes and reprocessing facilities that generate value from our resources, and we are now focusing our energies on anaerobic digestion (AD), EfW and other advanced technologies for residual waste. When you consider the current state of the country’s energy supplies, we believe it is vital we continue to focus our efforts in this way.

Since the arrival of the coalition Government, debate about the best means to revive our ageing energy infrastructure has stepped up. Nuclear and renewable energy sources are once again finding their way to the top of the news agenda as the UK strives to find a realistic solution for future power.

Yet, as we head into autumn, the UK faces another winter of increased reliance on imported gas. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics and energy analysis company Platts (29 July 2010), a third of gas supplies now come from overseas. That means we are relying on imports for the equivalent of 7.6 million homes - more than three times the number of households in Wales.

Over-reliance on imported fossil fuel energy leaves us vulnerable to fluctuating prices and political unrest abroad. We store relatively little gas in comparison with other EU countries, and our ageing energy infrastructure is struggling to meet current needs. The UK’s existing power plants simply do not have the capacity or shelf-life to provide for us in the coming years. To reduce our reliance on imported and unsustainable energy sources, huge investment is required.

So what is the solution to reducing energy dependence? Nuclear power is once again being touted as a possible major contributor in resolving Britain’s potential looming energy crisis. Energy secretary Chris Huhne recently pledged that the UK’s £50bn nuclear power programme is on track, with the first new nuclear power plant due to open on time in 2018. But in the past he has admitted that nuclear power is “economically foolhardy” and “environmentally irresponsible”.

Even when all the planning and political issues are put to bed and the building of these facilities begins, such construction projects are extremely lengthy. The UK could begin to run short on generating capacity in the second half of this decade. Alternative power sources need to be found quickly.

Energy generated from waste provides a viable and sustainable solution to boosting domestic energy production. About the same amount of electricity is currently produced for UK homes through EfW as through wind farms - around 1.5% - and many industry insiders would like to see this rise to 6% by 2015 and to 20% by 2020.

Producing energy from food waste and residual wastes that would otherwise go to landfill offers the UK greater independence from imported power and a sustainable means of dealing with non-recyclables. Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group chairman and Labour MP Alan Whitehead has said recently that communities will have to accept more waste plants if the UK is to meet targets on cutting landfill. EfW plants can be built quickly and help avert energy shortages.

But while public support in general for renewable energy is high, facilities of all kinds often receive fierce opposition at a local level. Combustion EfW facilities in particular are plagued by ‘nimbyism’. While wind, tidal and solar power have been well covered by the media, awareness of EfW remains low, misinformation is rife and un-founded fears about incinerating waste common.

EfW is in fact subject to extremely stringent air quality standards - higher than those for conventional power stations or other industrial processes. The Environment Agency closely regulates existing EfW plants to make sure emissions are as low as possible to protect the environment and human health. Yet a noisy minority remains highly distrustful in some areas, although more pragmatic in others.

One Viridor-proposed EfW facility received almost no local objections, yet was still refused against officer recommendation, while another recently received 800 letters of opposition. Concerns ranged from air quality, impact on health, the undermining of recycling rates to flood risk. Similar concerns are raised around composting, AD and other waste plants. Scientific and technical evidence has shown these concerns to be unsubstantiated in modern, well-managed facilities.

Planning success is, of course, possible, where supported by good communications and clear local political leadership. Viridor is involved in constructing or looking to develop important new EfW plants where consents have been granted in Runcorn, Exeter and Cardiff, among others, where the facilities will operate in an integrated manner alongside good regional recycling systems.

The Government’s proposed move to ‘localism’, providing local authorities with greater power over facilities built in their area, is likely to create even greater obstacles to developing waste and recycling infrastructure, including all forms of EfW plants. Planning policy is already inconsistent, with some plants receiving local government support while others are substantially delayed over technicalities.

Consistent planning policy is vital if AD and EfW are to reach their potential and deliver a significant contribution to the UK’s energy strategy during the coming years. Firms often face long and costly delays in securing the necessary permits and permissions.

So is there an answer? We believe we need to unite as an industry and lobby enthusiastically at all levels to gain some sanity in the planning process and some measure in public perception. We should help political and community stakeholders to understand that promoting high levels of recycling and squeezing energy out of residual waste is common sense. Communities around the 420 operating EfW plants across Europe recognise them as ordinary and essential power-generating infrastructure.

We urge the industry to talk honestly to its communities about the pros and cons of such sites and not simply duck the issue. Let’s tackle those objections head on, argue our case, hold our ground and show how EfW, AD and other treatment technologies can make a contribution and deliver real results in the short, medium and long term.

We should be proud of what we have achieved so far as an industry. But we need to look to the future and take our rightful place at the heart of the UK’s renewable energy debate to help shape a sustainable Britain, which no longer relies on imported fossil fuels to keep the lights on.
Dan Cooke is external affairs manager at Viridor

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