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UK EfWs slow to adopt R1 efficiency standards

With the European Commission preparing to launch its circular economy proposals, EU member states will ultimately be obliged to formulate policies to meet them. At its heart will be measures designed to reduce carbon outputs and increase recycling.

The UK’s energy-from-waste (EfW) sector now processes a quarter of the country’s waste, up from less than 10% only a decade ago. With many more EfW plants in the pipeline, this is a rapidly expanding industry that shows no sign of slowing down, especially with the drive away from landfill.

But EfW facilities have some way to go to prove their sustainability credentials, and boosting the efficiency of their energy conversion is paramount to this.

The R1 standard was developed in 2008 as part of a package of revisions to the Waste Framework Directive. For plants to be accredited under the standard, they are obliged to meet efficiency targets based on the calorific value of the waste feedstock. Only then will they be recognised as a recovery facility rather than disposal in terms of the waste hierarchy.

The Commission has made the R1 standard mandatory for any facility looking to import waste from other countries and, since 2010, exports of refuse-derived fuel from the UK go solely to R1 plants.

With the UK currently lacking enough EfW infrastructure to process domestic tonnages, imports are not a consideration, so R1 is not required. So the impetus to gain accreditation is lacking, especially considering the sizable capital costs of kitting one facility with more efficient technology.

For a facility to be accredited, it must be regulated by the Environment Agency (EA) and be dedicated to municipal waste or automotive shredder residues. To seek environmental permits from the EA, applicants must submit detailed calculations concerning the R1 energy efficiency formula.

Under the current accreditation process, operators must pay £2,000 for a new application, £1,000 for validation after commissioning, continual annual reports and a comprehensive recalculation after five years. But the desire for operators to gain accreditation on their facilities has been given a potential boost this year after changes to the Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) regulations.

Since January 2015, PRNs are being issued only if the incinerator is R1 compliant. Of the older plants it is estimated that approximately 50% could achieve R1 accreditation.

The EA processes applicants through two tiers, with smaller EfW facilities able to issue up to 400 tonnes of PRNs for a £500 application fee. Meanwhile, large-scale plants which can claim an unlimited number of PRNs will have to pay a fee of around £2,600. The EA believes that both the fees and the cost of managing a PRN system may deter facilities from applying.

The current PRN for recovery is 70p- 80p, so there remains a significant surplus of recovery PRNs on the market. This makes it difficult for operators to justify the added expense and complexity of maintaining R1 accreditation.

Many UK plants are potentially compliant with R1 but have not applied for operational validation. A list published by Defra under a Freedom of Information request in December 2014 shows more than 65 UK EfWs.

Only six of these have achieved formal accreditation from the EA. These facilities include Veolia’s plant at Newhaven in East Sussex, Cory’s Riverside Resource centre in London and Suez’s EfW plant in Sussex. Four more in operation are applying and a further 11 plants at design stage are deemed likely to achieve the status.

Defra believes that “the majority of EfW plants in England would meet the R1 designation were they to formally apply to the EA”.

Viridor said it has not applied to validate facilities for R1 in England because it does not intend to import waste and landfill diversion is the main priority. But in Wales, the company will apply to validate its Cardiff EfW because this is required by the Welsh Government.

In terms of Government policy, only R1-certified plants qualify as recovery while the rest are counted as disposal facilities. This results in a skewed picture of the UK’s waste hierarchy. Policy is increasingly focused on EfW plants that produce combined heat and power, with all facilities requiring space for the possible inclusion of such heat disseminating technology.

Defra published a revised edition of Energy from waste: a guide to the debate in February 2014 with an additional Future Policy Direction, which heavily emphasised the importance of efficiency and heat recovery.

The guide noted that, in a forthcoming update to the national planning policy Planning for Sustainable Waste Management, local authorities will have to consider siting EfW facilities in areas which allow them to use heat as an alternative or additional output to electricity.

Most EfW plants have not taken advantage of the heat generation capabilities because it has proven difficult to find commercial partners willing to commit to purchasing such output over an extended period of time, something that is required by investors.

The Bernard Road plant in Sheffield is a good example of where councils can provide a sustained customer for heat output. The plant first came into operation in 1975 with an input capacity of around 125,000 tonnes of waste feedstock.

Provision of steam for district heating was expanded in 1988 to service more tower blocks, council-owned buildings in the city centre and a number of large commercial and institutional buildings. The system has continued to expand and, by 2013, has a main heat network of more than 44km.

A replacement facility was built on the same site by Veolia and opened in 2005. Electricity and heat outputs for Sheffield are dynamically shifted according to the season.

When the circular economy proposals are reintroduced later this year, EfW plants could be under greater pressure to perform than ever before. Efficient energy generation, such as that mandated by R1, will be required if the rhetoric of sustainability and maintaining a closed loop system is to be maintained, along with complementing the drive towards a circular economy focused on material security.

Sector responses

A Veolia spokesman:

“We have 10 operational energy recovery facilities and four have already been granted R1 status by the Environment Agency. Four have applications in progress, all of which we expect to achieve R1. It can take some time to ratify R1 within the EA because it is a rigorous process.

“Where feasible, we aim to improve performance at our facilities through district heating as we have already achieved at Sheffield and SELCHP (South East London). This kind of embedded, decentralised renewable technology kills two birds with one stone: making a waste into a valuable fuel and enabling the UK to increase its renewable energy delivery, underpinning its energy security needs and long-term sustainability.”

A Suez spokesman:

“We have applied for R1 accreditation on all our UK-based EfW facilities to demonstrate that they implement a genuine energy recovery process rather than a waste disposal process. While the recent changes to the Packaging Recovery Note system do provide additional impetus to register for the accreditation, our motivation is delivering demonstrable efficiency to maximise the environmental benefit of our plants.

“We also recognise that heat production can provide greater energy efficiency than electricity production. Although none of our plants is connected to a heat network so far, we have pre-installed this capability in our newer facilities so that they can take advantage of it.

“While the calorific value of waste feedstock in the UK may lower in future as materials such as paper and plastic are increasingly recycled, we do not expect the R1 status of our plants to be affected because we can increase the waste throughput to maintain steam output.

“However, efficiency might be affected if and when it becomes necessary for a plant to fire gas oil to maintain the temperature required in the furnace. For example, the furnace might not be able to sustain the required temperature due to the quality of the waste material (ie there is a greater proportion of wet organics).”

A Defra spokesman:

“It is up to individual plant operators to decide whether they wish to apply for R1 accreditation, although the majority of UK plants are efficient enough to qualify. There are currently six plants in operation with R1 accreditation.

“Defra encourages operators to continue to find ways to maximise the energy they are able to recover from waste that cannot be recycled or reused. Suppliers also have a part to play, and should aim to send waste to the plants most efficient at converting waste to energy.”

Shlomo Dowen, national co-ordinator, United Kingdom Without Incineration Network (UKWIN):

“Many proposed gasification and pyrolysis incineration plants would struggle to meet the R1 threshold in operation. This reflects poorly on the technology because the threshold is in fact a very low bar. UKWIN is concerned that facilities may be obtaining planning consent and contracts on the basis that they would operate as ‘other recovery’ when, in fact, such facilities could struggle to operate even as a ‘disposal’ facility.

“Of course, ‘other recovery’ is still near the bottom of the waste hierarchy. Rather than wasting money on expensive ways to destroy our valuable resources, we should be looking into better collection, sorting and treatment systems to eliminate residual waste altogether.”

Written in collaboration with Chris Coggins

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