Society in denial over waste-to-energy?

Peter Gerstrom, chairman of ICE Waste Management Board asks if Britain is burning its bridges by snubbing incineration.

As a nation of consumers, we want more and we want higher standards of living, but we don't want to know about the environmental cost. We are in denial that there is a price to pay for a sustainable future.

To our children, bread comes for the supermarket, so does cheese. They have become disconnected from the origin of the product. So how it gets to the shelf is someone else's problem. And we are all equally disconnected from the origins of that wonderful product that fuels our modern lifestyles - electricity.

We just want to be able to switch on our lights and plug in our computers anywhere, anytime. We don't want to know how the electricity gets to the plugs or what environmental cost comes with it. We are in denial.

But, it is payback time for the environment. It cannot sustain our exorbitant, wasteful lifestyles. It is suffering from Global Warming and if we don't change our lifestyles, it'll change them for us.

The man on the Clapham Omnibus may not as an individual feel he can do much about where electricity comes from. But as part of a community, part of a region, part of a country he can. The country's government can set a policy for generation, the region can create the conditions for projects of a size that are economically viable, and communities can accept responsibility for hosting the projects.

To date we have been lucky.

Engineers with great foresight and political backing, set up a robust, self-sufficient centralized electricity infrastructure to serve the whole country in the early part of the last century.

They based it on readily available domestic fossil fuels and some first generation nuclear generation which at the time was an economic option. This infrastructure has done its job, but like the Model T Ford, which revolutionized transport in our society, it doesn't have the performance, sustainability or reliability that we need today. We need a new electricity infrastructure.

In its State of the Nation report in 2003, the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) pointed out that the future of energy supply was moving rapidly towards crisis and asked the question "Will the lights stay on?"

Electricity in the UK is generated from coal (35%), nuclear (22%), gas (28%), renewables (2%) with 3% from other sources. But the old generation, polluting power stations will have to shut before 2016. If we continue to burn gas, we will have to import it from politically unstable parts of the world and we will do nothing about Global Warming.

We need diversity of fuel supply and an environmentally friendly energy infrastructure. At last, the nuclear option is back on the agenda and can help cut carbon dioxide emissions. Are we coming out of denial? Are we coming back from disconnect?

Not entirely. We have a target of producing 20% of electricity from Renewable Sources by 2020. The smart answer run by the environmentalists and politicians was that wind would produce all we need.

Wind farms could be located in remote areas and the fuel was free. But no one would listen to engineers who warned that a wind-based infrastructure needed a massive upgrade to the grid network and made modern life subject to the weather: if the wind didn't blow, the lights went out. In fact, because of this unreliability power companies can only guarantee stable electricity supply by maintaining conventional power stations with at least 50% of the capacity of wind farms on permanent standby.

Now Engineers are pointing out that there is a renewable energy source that can help fill the gap. It is produced by the man on the Clapham Omnibus everyday, collected by the community everyday, dealt with regionally everyday and becoming a bigger headache for government everyday. Waste.

Whether we like it or not, this country has to spend nearly £10 million on new waste infrastructure over the next 10 years to meet European Directives aimed at reducing the production of methane, the potent Global Warming greenhouse gas, from landfills. We will have to increase recycling, especially the biodegradable fraction of waste: a target of 40% has been set in the UK Government's Waste Management Strategy.

However, a report published recently by ICE and the Renewable Power Association (RPA), "Quantification of the Potential Energy from Residuals" identified that the residual waste left after that recycling could be turned into electricity - enough to supply 17% of the country's needs.

Without Government's will and support this will not happen. The mechanism established to help finance a shift to renewable energy - the Renewable Obligation (RO) - currently excludes the very energy from waste (EfW) techniques that are most technologically robust and most importantly capable of attracting finance from the banks, notably conventional moving grate and fluidised bed technologies.

In my view the failure to support these technologies through the availability of Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) works against their adoption by Local Authorities and the waste industry. At the same time the new EfW technologies such as gasification and pyrolysis that do qualify for ROCs remain unproven in the UK and struggle to find financial support. This isn't simply about economics, an energy from waste plant certified by the government as a supplier of clean, renewable power is always going to be a more appealing proposition to local people than the caricature of a dirty incinerator.

After five years of operation, the RO is being subject to the one review promised by Government in the instrument's lifetime. We have a unique chance to change it to allow all EfW technologies to be brought within its remit.

But the RO is dealt with in one part of Government, and waste strategy in another. It disconnected. There are pressures groups that insist every bit of waste can be recycled. They are in denial. The ICE suggests a solution that is joined up and deliverable.

It is not safe to spread residual waste products to land. So let's produce renewable energy from residual waste and hit two targets with one investment.

We don't have the option about spending the money on waste. We have the choice on how we spend it. Lets admit we need the energy from waste. Lets get connected and join up waste and energy policy. Then let the Engineers get on and deliver the infrastructure.

Institution of Civil Engineers
http://www.ice.org.uk/homepage/index.asp


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