Peter Mills calls for smaller waste-to-energy projects

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EfW's crucial role in UK's renewable energy strategy by Peter Mills of New Earth Solutions

Energy-from-waste (EfW) has a fundamental part to play in the delivery of a lower carbon UK economy, as set out in the government’s recently published Renewable Energy Strategy.

But if the strategy is to be successful, we believe we need a whole new approach to EfW, relying not on large, mass burn schemes but on smaller, scaleable projects that can grow on a modular basis, as and when required. For, when it comes to EfW, big is no longer beautiful; decentralisation is the name of the game.

Smaller local EfW facilities are, we believe, more fundable, deliverable and appropriate – contributing significantly to meeting our waste objectives without cutting across other waste minimisation and recycling initiatives. Huge mass burn plants, in contrast, are hungry for funding and for waste, as well as presenting testing planning challenges.

The new generation of advanced thermal conversion technologies, such as those developed have higher energy efficiency ratings than large and inefficient mass burn schemes. They can also be located in town centres – rather than on urban fringes, as is the case for mass burn operations – supplying fuel for electricity and heat for domestic, commercial and industrial use.

It is even possible to co-locate advanced EfW technology alongside the plant it serves, such as car and steel manufacturers, supplying the site direct with heat and energy rather than feeding energy into the grid.

Decentralising the EfW infrastructure also serves to encourage a wide range of entrepreneurial businesses and technical advances, enabling creative local solutions, with local accountability, to be developed.

At the moment, our focus is firmly on the municipal waste stream but that only represents a third of the UK’s waste material. We need to tap into the other two-thirds – the commercial and industrial waste streams – giving them access to smaller, more readily available facilities and enabling them to buy into a more local, more scaleable EfW future. It doesn’t matter where the waste comes from, it has the same detrimental impact on the environment – it’s where it goes and how we treat it that counts.

We need to develop a mix of technologies and climate change mitigating measures; the aspiration for the EfW sector must be that whatever we devise has to provide at least the same level of service as fossil fuels – but without the environmental impact. That is, power on demand, as and when it is needed, not – as with some technologies such as wind power – when and if it is available.

This is a tall order but we believe that, decoupled from the fossil fuel market, EfW solutions such as advanced thermal conversion can provide a minimal impact answer that will help us meet our lower carbon economy objectives.

The challenge to companies is to go on creating new and innovative EfW technologies, testing and proving them in practice. For this they will need to make a substantial investment in R&D, much of it ahead of any promised funding but they will only be willing to commit financially if they are confident there is a viable marketplace to enter.

Such a completely fresh approach requires not only bold thinking from the industry but also joined-up policymaking from Government. The challenge for Westminster is to bring together the best brains in the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and DEFRA to produce and implement intelligent, long-term renewables policies that are sufficiently clear and robust to withstand any future political ups and downs.

After all, the UK’s ambitions and visions for a low carbon future are much too important to be treated as a political football.

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