Turning waste into energy, published in The Times

Published in The Times

A huge opportunity to help solve the UK's future energy needs is now being investigated, according to experts in waste management. Turning waste into energy - both electricity and heat - could provide for the needs of many hundreds of thousands of people, if we only take the steps to make it happen.

At the moment, Britain uses just nine per cent of its municipal waste to create energy. The government's Waste Strategy 2000 review, currently in consultation, suggests that up to 27 per cent of municipal solid waste will have to be processed this way by 2020 in order to meet EU targets.

Greater potential

"There is a lot more potential to recover energy from waste than we achieve at the moment," comments Mike Hession, technical director at UK environmental firm SLR Consulting. "Many European countries do far more than we do." He cites the example of Denmark, where 32 per cent of household waste is recycled, providing heat for 360,000 households and electricity for 430,000 households, through combined heat and power facilities.

Homes and schools in Denmark are routinely planned around EfW facilities, giving them ready access to cheap, reliable sources of power and heat. In the UK, by contrast, it can be extremely difficult to get planning permission for EfW developments because of the perceived negative aspects of living close to a waste disposal facility. "Even where the technical grounds for a planning application are acceptable, public opposition can mean the application fails," says Hession.

He is urging the government to do more to support such applications and to promote the benefits of the technology, as part of the means of reducing landfill, providing renewable energy and reducing the UK's dependence on oil and gas. "It's a sensitive and emotive area where previous governments haven't wanted to get involved," Hession adds.

Tightly monitored processes
In addition to Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland and Germany all have advanced EfW capabilities, as well as having some of the highest recycling rates in Europe. This point contradicts the views of some environmentalists that burning waste is problematic, because it could discourage recycling. "We don't believe EfW affects recycling rates," says Hession. "And the modern EfW industry is very heavily regulated. Processes are exceptionally tightly monitored and controlled," to prevent pollution.

Burning waste directly is just one of the technologies available. 'Gasification', where waste is burned using a controlled amount of air, or pyrolysis, where the waste is in an airless chamber and heated until it decomposes and produces a gas, are becoming increasingly attractive as waste treatments. Anaerobic digestion is a further technique that is being used to gain energy from waste and has potential to be used more widely.

"We feel the government needs to invest in infrastructure to enable more EfW," says Andy Street, Hession's colleague at SLR Consulting. "There needs to be a greater degree of certainty of delivery. There is still a debate over whether the capacity to do EfW is needed, whereas some European countries are already banning landfill of non-biodegradable material."

Street argues that a proper strategy for developing EfW has yet to appear. He believes that the different strands of government - national and local - need to work together more, there needs to be more public trust developed in the technology and more transparency on how much waste management costs. "There has to be a more holistic approach, as there is in many European countries," says Street.

Sheffield leads the way
Local authorities should study the example of Sheffield, where a combined heat and power plant using waste was developed in the 1980s and uses more than 28 kilometres of pipes to bring hot water to thousands of homes, offices and public buildings.

As Mike Hession points out, the UK's reserves of natural gas and oil in the North Sea are running out, just as oil prices are reaching new highs. "There are significant cost benefits to be gained from EfW in addition to meeting environmental targets," he says.