Getting the green light for AD builds

Overcoming planning and finance obstacles can be daunting for new builds - Matthew Aylott offers a step-by-guide to getting an off-farm anaerobic digestion plant off the ground.

There is a growing interest in developing anaerobic digestion to produce renewable energy. Every year the UK produces over 100M tonnes of organic waste that is suitable for AD. If used to produce energy, this waste could generate up to 7% of the UK’s anticipated renewable energy by 2020, or 20 TWh each year.

To meet this target would require over 1,600 farm-based AD plants (500kW) and 300 larger food waste facilities (1,500kW). However, finding funding and getting planning permission remain the biggest challenges to new AD projects. In this article, I will outline the steps needed to successfully start your own off-farm AD venture.

The first step is to initiate a pre-application enquiry. A pre-application enquiry is a written request for advice or information relating to a proposed development or change of use for a specific plot of land. This should be done through your local minerals and waste development control team at an early stage in the feasibility process; they can be found via your local council.

Engage early

Step two is to inform the local community at an early stage. Many successful AD projects have begun their consultation before formal plans have been submitted. This can alleviate the negative perceptions of AD, build trust and avoid having to change plans to account for local concerns at a later stage in the development process.

The next step is to prepare for possible environmental impact assessment (EIA). This is essential if your proposal is large-scale (accepting over 50,000tpa) or in a sensitive location, for example a conservation area, green belt or close to a residential development. However, many councils are adopting a precautionary approach and requesting EIAs for installations under the 50,000tpa threshold.

After that, submit planning application. All installations accepting third party waste will require full planning permission. When submitting a planning application, it can be helpful to refer to planning policy statements, which state the Government’s principles towards certain aspects of planning.

Two particularly relevant documents for AD are planning policy statements 7: sustainable development in rural areas, and 22: renewable energy. However, you should be prepared for a long process with lots of questions. Ensure your application is supported by all relevant documents, including an EIA if applicable.

Secure feedstock

Step five is secure feedstock. It is extremely important to secure your feedstock source prior to securing investment, as this will help reassure financiers. Where possible feedstocks should be sourced from several different suppliers to spread the risk and reduce your exposure.

Then you need to secure investment, and initial investments can be high. A centralised AD plant (800kW), supporting 800 cows, 500 hectares of maize and 2,500 tonnes of food waste is estimated to cost £2.2M. Larger projects can far exceed this figure, for example, GWE biogas in East Yorkshire will use 50,000tpa food waste to produce 2,000kW The cost of building the GWE Biogas plant in East Yorkshire has been estimated at between £6-8M.

Most AD plants rely on private finance to get them off the ground, although some banks will lend money to cover installation costs. Government grants may also be available towards these costs. Taking these grants may leave an AD project ineligible for on-going support from the feed-in tariff and renewable heat incentive schemes.

Opportunity knocks

Both these schemes support the long-term financial security of renewable energy projects by paying suppliers for each kWh of electricity and heat they produce. To find out more on the opportunities for investing in AD and the steps you must take to meet regulations, visit the official information portal on AD at The website is maintained by the UK’s National Centre for Biorenewable Energy, Fuels & Materials and offers free and impartial information and advice.

On the site you will find useful tools, including a map of active AD plants and a cost calculator to better understand the potential costs and returns you can expect.

Dr Matthew Aylott is science & technology writer at the UK’s National Centre for Biorenewable Energy, Fuels & Materials

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