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No time to waste on development

Stuart Hayward-Higham

The fiscal challenge for the UK over the next 10 years is huge. Reducing the deficit has a high priority in all colours of mainstream political thinking. The balance between how much to reduce and when, compared with the promotion of growth, is the subject of much heated discussion and consideration.

For us in the waste and resource management sector, the challenge of replacing the waste still going to landfill with alternatives is both challenging and exciting. In the next 10 years, the public and private sectors could be investing more than £25 billion in new infrastructure. Through the construction, support and operational phases, this will generate jobs and products to place back into local markets and in many cases products to be sold abroad to improve our national balance of payments. This is and should be welcomed as a great opportunity in these financially challenging times.

When I attended both the Futuresource and biogas conferences recently, the question repeatedly asked was: “What could the new Government do to make progress in our sector happen?” Take anaerobic digestion: because it has the focus of Government and is therefore topical, the wish list could be almost endless. We could start with understanding the sustainability challenge of the full chain, from collection through transfer to treatment and disposal of residues. We could then work out the total cost of service and see, very simply, what is affordable.

If we did this, it would then be easier to explain the levels of financial support required for the Feed in Tariff [FiT] and what level of grandfather support is required for the Renewables Obligation (RO). But do we expect the tariff and RO to support the full chain or will carbon eventually be the commercial driver? It’s certainly better positioned to underpin the full service provision.

Furthermore, we have a great opportunity with a near blank canvas to choose the right solutions. Multiple studies have identified that using biomethane sourced from AD plants for space heating and especially vehicle fuel carries significant environmental benefits.

However, to achieve this, we need access to the gas grid to allow cost-effective transport of the fuel from producer to consumer. Not only does this allow sustainable fuels to be used, it also supports the sustainability of the collection of the food waste from customers. However, the costs associated with compliance, including gas input meters that cost £150,000 or more per plant, whatever its size, appear to work against easy access, another target that could be suggested to Government.

If decisions are not made quickly enough on both a macro scale (RO grandfathering, FiT levels and renewable heat incentive support, for example) to a micro scale (costs of meters and so on), early development will either be slowed or will develop electricity solutions that are better known rather than the more sustainable ones. So one request could be for a quick decision on these questions.

I cannot complete this article without mentioning community engagement, education and the planning process. For instance, we are currently tracking more than 26 million tonnes of projects that seek to recover the energy embedded in waste. However, tracking success in the planning process suggests that only between one and three in 10, depending on the scale and choice of technology, are approved. Obviously, there will always be poorly chosen sites that should fall out prior to going to committee decision and that’s the job of the developers to find the right site and the planning officers to secure the process.

But where good sites are selected and officers recommend approval we must, across the sector, find ways to improve success and therefore new infrastructure delivery. Government can certainly help on this.
Stuart Hayward-Higham is technical director at Sita UK

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