This year is make or break for gasification as a serious technology option for municipal waste in the UK. The foundation for commercialisation of the new technology in the UK has been heralded by much speculation during the past 20 years.
The first decade began with occasional pilots and small-scale ventures – examples being plants in Dumfries and the Isle of Wight, Compact Power (combining pyrolysis and gasification) and a GEM gasifier, as well as ventures in plasma gasification by Advanced Plasma Power.
These led to some successes and failures, notably on the negative side at Dumfries. On the more positive side, the relatively long-running Defra-funded facility on the Isle of Wight operated on municipal-derived fuel, although this was not without issues and is now being replaced by conventional combustion technology.
There were also some pilot-scale successes from smaller plant on niche streams such as tyres, hazardous and clinical waste.
The next phase of development included projects funded by the former Green Investment Bank that processed biomass, as well as commercial-scale ventures into municipal waste treatment from New Earth: advanced thermal technology at Avonmouth and the ambitious dual development in the Tees Valley of two plasma gasification facilities, each with 350,000 tonnes per annum (tpa) capacity.
But the latter was a disastrous investment for Air Products because the first facility never passed the commissioning phase and the second was abandoned mid-construction. The Avonmouth plant has been operational for periods, was divested from New Earth and is undergoing a refit. It is reported to be due to restart operations this year.
Another gasification facility, Energy Works in Hull, a larger scale facility at 240,000 tpa that processes refuse-derived fuel, is in commissioning and also due to commence operations in the middle of 2018. These two plants are part of the story of the development of gasification for 2018.
But there are three others, procured off the back of local authority waste contracts and all due to start operation this year. Each is a statement of the potential of the technology, as evidenced by successful facilities overseas and due diligence in the procurement process. The contracts relate to Derby (Resource Recovery Solutions), Milton Keynes (Amey) and Glasgow (Viridor). So, are we seeing a watershed in the UK as a result of these venture?
There was a major setback when Energos – a key technology provider and the most established European source of reference plant using gasification – went into administration. Associated costs and project delays, among other issues, affected construction contractor Interserve, which pulled out of the energy-from-waste sector as a result. However, the three UK projects referred to remain tantalisingly close to operation.
Each facility uses close-coupled combustion type gasification, which means that the waste is thermally treated in a reduced oxygen environment (gasified) and the consequent syngas derived from the waste is burnt in a second or adjacent chamber to release its energy and create electricity via a steam circuit (in a similar manner to the energy recovery process within a conventional incinerator).
It is felt that this configuration is the simplest and most robust technology to tackle more difficult wastes such as municipal solid waste (MSW), because the quality of the syngas is harder to control using such feedstock. The ultimate aim for the technology would be to derive higher value chemical and more efficient energy recovery via gas engines or hydrogen cells.
That said, if the technology fails in making this initial commercial step, then it is unlikely to ever reach this destination on residual MSW in the UK. So where does this leave us on the three projects?
“There are three facilities due to start operation this year. Each is a statement of the potential of gasification, as evidenced by successful facilities overseas and due diligence in the procurement process.”
Glasgow’s Recycling and Renewable Energy Centre is receiving waste, and the MRF and anaerobic digestion (AD) elements are operational. In November 2017, Viridor reported that the gasification process (termed the Energy Recovery Facility or ERF) is in “final commissioning”. There are no further updates at this time.
Amey’s Milton Keynes plant has a capacity of 93,600 tpa, and the company has been finalising installation and testing of the technology during the past year. Through an AD and gasification plant, the facility will export around 5.8MW of electricity to the National Grid each year.
During testing phases in 2017, the facility processed more than 79,000 tonnes of waste, extracted around 9,900 tonnes of recyclates and generated 9,700MWh of electricity.
The Derby plant which is operated by Resource Recovery Solutions, a joint venture between Renewi and Interserve, is progressing, with a trading update from November 2017 stating that they “expect the facility to enter full service in mid-2018”.
The finish line is nearing for these three plants, together with the Hull plant and a refitted Avonmouth facility, and the operation phase will deliver its verdict – but what of other opportunities for the sector?
The ‘China issue’ and the impending national resources and waste strategy could see a lot of change for UK recycling, with quality being key. Could tonnage-based targets be abandoned, with mixed plastics and some mixed paper grades suffering as a result?
With a glut of poor-quality recyclables potentially available for recovery and more than three million tonnes of RDF being sent to the continent, gasification could yet find its place in the UK market as our resource recovery system adapts to new drivers and policy shifts accordingly.
Paul Frith is director of the consultancy Frith Resource Management