Select Committee on Environmental Audit Memoranda


Annex 3

ENERGY FROM WASTE—A RENEWABLE ENERGY SOURCE?

THE WASTE STREAM

  The waste stream consists of a number of components:

    —  biodegradables;

    —  plastics;

    —  glass;

    —  metals etc.

  It might be considered ideal for all of the above, with the exception of the biodegradable matter, to be reused and recycled, and the biodegradable matter could be composted. However, industrialised countries are a long way from reusing or recycling a significant fraction of the current volume. The economics of different activities affect what choices are made. From European statistics, generation of energy from waste is compatible with and accompanies greater volumes of recycling.

  Energy from waste has been described as an unsustainable form of energy production in that it would not be a significant part of the ideal solution. However, the lifespan of these plants is only two or three decades, and judged against currently-available solutions, they must be recognised as having an important intermediate role, as they not only deal with a waste problem, but also displace carbon emissions from fossil-fuelled plant.

ENERGY RECOVERY

  Energy from waste is an efficient method of recovering both the biodegradable and non-biodegradable energy content of waste. The result is that the non-combustible residue from energy from waste can be as little as one tenth of the volume of the original volume which would have been landfilled.

  As Refuse Derived Fuels (RDFs) can be easily transported, they can be burnt in CHP facilities, combining the advantages of a renewable source of energy with the efficiencies of CHP.

  It is sometimes argued that energy from waste should not be encouraged because it produces undesirable compounds in the combustion process. Energy from waste is not by necessity a polluting process, but one to which quality standards, including derived fuels standards, must be applied. Furthermore, quality standards can be defined which would apply to all solid waste treatment, irrespective of the process.

  It should be remembered that the UK disposes of a small percentage of its municipal waste in energy to waste plants compared to many other EU countries. In addition, the Government has produced its Waste Strategy, which implies that 15 per cent of Municipal Solid Waste will be used in energy from waste plants by 2010. It is interesting to note that very few of the energy from waste NFFO contracts have come forward. This is principally due to the above points allied to the difficulty in obtaining planning consents.

  It is unclear how future costs of contracts and technologies in the energy from waste and waste disposal industry will develop. The Government should not seek to favour one renewable technology over another. It should seek to ensure a level playing field so that the most efficient forms of renewable energy are brought first to the energy market. It is the duty of environmental and health agencies to ensure that high pollution standards are ensured.

QUALITY STANDARDS

  Any quality standards applying to solid waste treatment must:

    —  maximise the opportunities to reuse or recycle waste materials;

    —  minimise the pollutants (airborne, aqueous, and solid) liberated from different classifications of waste;

    —  value the energy recovered (energy efficiency);

    —  recognise the legacy implications of leaving potential contaminants untreated.

PROVEN TECHNOLOGY

  A further aspect of commercial viability is the degree of risk that is involved with bringing the product to market. Normally a product is only normally thought of as being commercially viable when it is known to work. Certain types of energy from waste may be regarded as proven technology, but there are other technologies that should achieve improved environmental performance and energy efficiency that are not proven at full scale. Gasification or pyrolysis of waste are examples of technologies that need to be proven at full scale and in a commercial environment. Simply because one technology that utilises a certain fuel is regarded as proven does not imply that all technologies that utilise that fuel are proven, and hence, it is not correct to state that all technologies utilising that fuel are commercially viable. There is no reason to exclude all technologies that utilise that same fuel from support. For example, using the logic implied by excluding energy from waste from the Obligation, there would be no need to support offshore wind projects with grants because onshore wind projects do not require them. The suggested policy is inconsistent in its treatment of different renewables.

SOURCE OF WASTE?

  There is no logic in excluding energy from municipal and industrial waste but including landfill gas and energy produced from waste products produced by agriculture and forestry. Recovering energy from waste wood or waste paper, where both have been derived from managed resources, is environmentally little different from growing trees to use as the fuel for a biomass plant. Part of the argument seems to be that energy from waste prevents recycling but this argument is not sound. It is perfectly possible to specify recycling targets such that what is left to go into energy from waste plants cannot sensibly be recovered in any other way. Further, energy from waste can be set up in a way which enhances the recycling of items such as glass and metals. Setting such targets for recycling is a matter for waste management policy not energy policy. The alternatives to energy from waste for many waste products are landfill and composting, both of which release greenhouse gases. All forms of renewable energy using combustion technology release greenhouse gases at the point of combustion and many require the use of fossil fuels, either in harvesting and delivering the renewable fuel to the plant, for flame stabilisation or converted chemically into fertiliser. However, despite these imperfections, they produce significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions than fossil-fuelled power plants. This includes energy from waste.

SUMMARY

  Energy from waste plants deal with many of the problems of the solid waste stream, and produce electricity from primarily renewable sources. Even fossil-based waste streams, primarily plastics, are used at least once before combustion, which is a 100 per cent improvement on the fuel use of petrochemicals.

  The UK Government accepts energy from waste as part of its Kyoto solution—and the grounds given for its exemption from the Obligation are that it does not need financial support. It is not a sustainable argument that new energy from waste plants will be built if it is not included in the Obligation.

  The impact of excluding energy from waste from the Obligation should not be under-estimated. Energy from waste developments represent such a large part of the project finances companies' renewable energy portfolios, that the exclusion of energy from waste might mean that teams are disbanded, leading to less development of renewable energy generally.


 
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