Refuse derived fuel exports
1st March 2013
The announcement that exports from the UK of refuse derived fuel (RDF) – fuel made from residual municipal and commercial waste – rose sharply in 2012 to 892,000 tonnes is no surprise to the waste management industry. For almost two decades the sector has fought for recognition by policymakers of the huge contribution energy-from-waste (EfW) can make towards meeting the UK’s climate change obligations and the demand for renewable energy, and its potential to create local employment. These benefits are well understood by our northern European neighbours.
A number of reports have highlighted this potential. In 2005, the Institution of Civil Engineers estimated that after recycling 50 per cent of our waste, the potential energy recovery from the residual fraction could account for as much as 17 per cent of total UK electricity consumption in 2020, and could contribute 10-12 per cent of the UK’s renewable energy needs. If the heat (currently an untapped resource) can also be harnessed, refuse derived fuel can contribute even more to the UK’s energy demand.
Government enthusiasm has warmed in recent years, though cognisant of this political hot potato, generally at arms length by avoiding overt central planning in favour of local decision-making. Herein lies the problem. Energy-from-waste is seen as a solution to a waste management problem rather than an energy generator that happens to use waste as its fuel rather than oil, gas or coal. Consequently, energy-from-waste capacity is planned as part of the mix of waste treatment plants, and often not at sites that are best placed for using the power and heat that an energy-from-waste plant generates.
Above all, obtaining planning permission for energy-from-waste facilities can be difficult, costly and time-consuming. The government’s solution for wind farms, which face the same hurdles, has been to off-shore our planning difficulties to Ireland. In the case of wind, however, energy produced in Ireland is returned to the UK. If, as Defra has stated, we are to retain the benefits within the UK, a domestic solution is required. For a start, we could consider moving the lead responsibility for energy-from-waste to the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), where it would stand a greater chance of being integrated into the UK’s delivery plans for our future energy mix.
Until the UK realises the value of residual waste as an energy source, the best environmental option is to export it to countries with ample energy-from-waste capacity. The prize for retaining refuse derived fuel within the UK is enormous. The 892,000 tonnes of refuse derived fuel exported in 2012 generated about 80 megawatts of electricity – enough to meet the energy needs of 80,000 homes.Tweet