Food waste shortages already impacting AD industry, says NNFCC

EXCLUSIVE: Rapid expansion in the anaerobic digestion (AD) industry over the past year has taken it from an 'emerging, niche waste treatment industry' to one providing a significant contribution to the UK's electricity production.

That’s according to the National Non-Food Crops Centre (NNFCC) speaking at Sustainability Live on the same day it launched its second annual AD deployment report.

But further development of the industry is expected to be hampered by supply chain security, especially food waste contracts, and a ‘perverse’ cost control mechanism.

Shift to agriculture

The report shows that 50 new AD plants have been commissioned in the past 12 months, taking the total number of operational plants to 185; capable of providing electricity for 350,000 households.

Two hundred new plants have entered the development pipeline in the past year taking the total to over 500, but less than a quarter (46) of these newly initiated projects are expected to be predominantly food waste supplied.

Speaking at Sustainability Live, NNFCC senior consultant and report author Dr Michael Goldsworthy said that food waste contracts are being ‘eaten up’, making it difficult for large-scale plants to secure food stocks and finance deals.

Goldsworthy said: “Operators are finding difficulty in providing evidence of where the food stock will come from for the lifetime of the plant.

“There are currently two million tonnes of food waste going into AD. We have significant capacity for food waste in the development pipeline so if everything completed we would be up around six million tonnes, which doesn’t provide too much headroom considering there are provisional estimates of nine million tonnes of food waste theoretically available.”

Undesirable outcomes

Goldsworthy said it was “difficult” to see how further development of the food waste AD sector would be possible in a few years unless accessability to food waste can be improved through policy or infrastructure improvements.

A switch in focus from food waste to agriculture crops for newly proposed plants could be seen as an early indication that food waste shortages are already impacting the sector, Goldsworthy added.

“We don’t want to end up encouraging undesirable outcomes in the AD industry such as very large crop only plants,” Goldsworthy said, adding that the 30,000 hectares of agricultural land required by the industry “shouldn’t be any cause for concern about the impact on food supply chains.”

NNFCC’s lead consultant for bioenergy and AD Lucy Hopwood said: “Feedstock is the key to future expansion. There’s concern about food waste availability with suggestions that we’re rapidly closing the waste treatment capacity gap. But the issue here isn’t availability – it’s acessibility.”

Unduly penalised

The Renewables Energy Association’s head of biogas, Dr Kiara Zennaro, also speaking at Sustainability Live, said small-scale development in the sector is also being limited by a “perverse cost control mechanism” in the Feed-in Tariff (FiT) which is “unduly penalising” the deployment of small scale AD.

“Sub-250KW plants have experienced reasonable growth but this is a very long way from the ambition of thousands of on-site digesters that was set out by the National Farmers Union a few years ago when the AD strategy plan was launched,” Zennaro said.

She added that limited capacity in the system is being swallowed by larger plants triggering tariff degressions.

Environmental performance

The pre-accreditation mechanism for funding resulted in a rush of applications at the end of 2014 that is expanding the industry too quickly.

Zennaro added: “Short term acceleration has resulted in risks to health and safety, the quality of operations that have been installed in a rush, and there is not enough time for the industry to find the skills needed. This has caused quite a few issues with environmental performance and health and safety.

“A FiT review is approaching so there is an opportunity for the minister to fix this issue, and for us in the industry to lobby for tariffs to be set to reasonable levels that are viable for the industry to grow and also to fix the cost control mechanism and pre-accreditation mechanisms. We would also like to ask for a higher tariff rate for very small scale AD below 100KW electricity in view of all the social and environmental benefits.”

Sustainability Live 2015: Day 2 highlights

Lucinda Dann

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