It is clear that the waste industry finds itself on the verge of real change. It now has the opportunity not only to improve environmental performance through recycling and diversion from landfill, but also to make a significant impact on the UK plan to decarbonise energy generation.
Energy recovery facilities are a practical and sustainable alternative to fossil fuel power stations, offering flexible generation while reducing carbon emissions. Yet energy from waste (EfW) is often little more than a footnote in UK energy policy, and recent renewable subsidy cuts threaten the development of this vital sector.
A collaborative, cross-industry effort to raise the profile of EfW with both Defra and the Department of Energy & Climate Change, along with a conscious integration with established UK energy operators such as the Shanks-SSE Multifuel projects, will lead to EfW moving higher up the political agenda, both nationally and locally.
Consistent UK policy, with clear and secure financial incentives, will create greater investor confidence and growth in this sector. The feedstock for such plants is readily available and, with long-term funding, EfW could become a crucial part of the UK’s energy mix.
Quality and technology are other key elements of the debate; with the UK exporting nearly three million tonnes of lower quality refuse-derived fuel (RDF) every year, should there be a greater emphasis on improving fuel quality and could this help to support our EfW infrastructure? If waste is to become a commodity, as many other fuel streams are, then this will be achieved only with a consistent approach to fuel quality.
New technologies for processing and refining RDF will go some way to achieving this, but standardised fuel grades and specifications will go even further to creating an end product rather than a waste.
More refined RDF/SRF of consistent quality has commercial advantages for producers, who will have greater negotiation on gate fees, and end users, who will achieve higher levels of plant efficiency with a higher quality, consistent feedstock. While there has been much debate surrounding the pros and cons of standardising the specifications for RDF, there is still little definiti ve guidance. Again, the waste industry has the opportunity to proactively raise the levels of fuel quality, bringing them in line with existing standards in the energy sector.
Despite the challenges, both technical and commercial, there is a real opportunity to create a vibrant, innovative sector that crosses the boundaries of both the UK energy and waste sectors, which will play a major part in UK energy generation.
Jim Clay is operations director, Energy & Waste Services at ESG. This article was written as part of ESG’s association with the MRW round table on policy around energy from waste.
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