Gasification plant fires up on the Isle of Wight

A £8M gasification plant - the first of its type in the UK - will produce enough electricity to power more than 2,000 homes on the island when it goes live in April. Katie Coyne reports

People are very supportive. There is acknowledgement that it's a difficult situation on an island and there is more realisation and ownership of the waste problem." While this quote refers to the situation on the Isle of Wight, it's difficult not to draw comparison with a 'slightly' bigger island a few miles North. And being home to the first gasification plant in the UK, those in the waste and recycling industry will be keeping a keen eye on the Garden Isle - just one of the many affectionate Isle of Wight nicknames.

Lynne Clarke, quoted above, is community liaison officer for the island's waste collection contractor imaginatively titled, Island Waste Services - a division of the waste management firm Biffa. Again, echoing the situation on the mainland, she explains that the island is running out of space: "The current landfill site is due to be filled up by 2015 so the more waste we can divert the better."

The division Clarke works for will supply the £8M gasification plant with fuel when it is up and running in April. Fuel will be provided in the form of pellets made from household waste, comprising mainly paper and plastics and woody material. The gasification technology used is patented, but involves the conversion of waste into a gas using a two-stage thermal heating process. Heat produced during this process is used to produce steam, which is then used to generate electricity.

A more favourable option
Compared to incineration, gasification does seem to be viewed more favourably by environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth (FoE) - although there are still reservations. FoE has argued that the process could undermine recycling unless only residual waste is used as fuel. It adds that any energy produced through gasification can't make up for the energy used to produce new products, therefore emphasising the importance of reuse and recycling.

Bruce Gilmore, general manager of Island Waste Services, acknowledges that the process needs material with a degree of high calorific value to work - such as paper and plastics.

"There are certain specifications," he explains. "We want as much of as the biodegradable and biomass as possible." However he confirms that the fuel will be produced only from residual waste: "It isn't stuff we could have recycled."

Gilmore adds that as well as the fact that plastics are currently very difficult to recycle, storage and shipping waste off the island is also an issue for them. Glass, newspaper, aluminium, cans, cardboard and WEEE items are all sent across to the mainland for recycling. And the three-mile stretch of sea, dividing the Isle of White from the rest of Britain, called the Solent inflates the costs involved in waste management.

"We send 20 tonnes of glass over there," says Gilmore. "It costs £20 a tonne to send it across and we only get paid by the glass recycler £28 a tonne. You might think that's an £8 profit but that doesn't factor in the cost of collecting the glass."

Being able to deal with waste locally from the 100,000 strong population therefore becomes more pressing and employing a process that can produce electricity is an added bonus. The plant will be able to generate 2.3MW of electricity, enough to power more than 2,000 homes annually. But in order to build it, £8M in funding had to be found.

Technology provider Energos is building the plant and investing £4M in the project. The company already has six gasification plants operational across Europe and secured an additional £2.7M funding from Defra. The six Energos plants have over 280,000 hours of operating experience and the plant at Stavanger in Norway has helped reduce the amount of municipal solid waste sent to landfill in 2006 to just 10%.

Defra provided funding from its new technology demonstrator programme to promote projects that reduce the amount of biodegradable waste sent to landfill. Tony Grimshaw, Energos' project director, says: "Driving all of this in the UK is the European directive to stop waste going into landfill requiring that the biological element be removed."

However he adds that there were other advantages to siting the plant on the Isle of Wight: "There was an opportunity to build quickly. There was an incinerator on the island that we had closed four years ago so we had the waste infrastructure ready."

Island Waste Services has an obligation to provide Energos with 30,000 tonnes of fuel every year. Around 25,000 tonnes of this will be produced from 50,000 tonnes of municipal waste as around two tonnes of this type of waste, after sorting, produces just one tonne of fuel. Once the project is up and running, Island Waste Services intends to look at sourcing commercial waste to make up the remainder.

Invigorated by the project, the Isle of Wight Council is drawing up plans to become the first 'eco-island' powered by greener, low carbon energy - yet another reason to keep a close eye on the island.

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