UK energy policy ‘vital’ to circular economy success, report argues

A new report which warns that current energy policies are stifling the UK's transition to a circular economy has been welcomed by the renewables industry, with calls for the Government to do more to realise the green potential of waste.

The policy paper, launched this week by specialist waste management company Remsol, questions how the energy demands of the recycling industry will be satisfied without access to more affordable and reliable electricity. (Scroll down for full report)

It also points out that there is an overemphasis being placed on decarbonising the power sector through an increasing deployment of low-carbon wind, wave and solar renewables, arguing that ‘it is unlikely that these energy sources alone can meet the demands of the recycling sector’ as more companies begin to incorporate the circular economy model.

—10 things you need to know about the circular economy— 

“Firstly, they [renewables] can’t react to sudden peaks in demand that are a feature of many recycling processes. Secondly, they only supply electricity whereas many recycling processes rely on gas. And, thirdly, power output can vary significantly and, at times, can be absent altogether,” reads the report.

Industry backing

Edie wanted to hear the views of the renewables sector on this, so put it to the Renewable Energy Association (REA) and the Renewable Energy Foundation – both of which seemed supportive of the report’s findings.

REA’s head of public affairs James Court said: “Remsol is right to say that the Government must do more to realise the green potential in our waste, so much of which we are exporting overseas. Conventional waste to energy plants are a cheap and reliable source of low carbon heat and power, while more modern technologies, like AD and ACT, are rich in opportunities for UK-developed technology and skills.

“Remsol is also right to say that variable renewables on their own can’t be relied on to power the country, but nobody is asking for a power supply that’s just wind, wave and solar. These technologies do have a fundamental role to play as part of the mix though, not least because onshore wind and solar have come down so rapidly in cost.”

The REF’s director Dr John Constable added: “”It is too little appreciated that industrial cleanliness and efficiency, including recycling to mitigate the use of primary resources, are energy dependent characteristics. Consequently it is far from paradoxical to suggest that the additional cost of current renewables policies, which by 2020 are likely to be about £8bn a year in subsidy and perhaps another £5bn a year for system manage, are actually a threat to a cleaner industrial future.
“This conflict is another reminder, as if it were needed, that current renewables are just too expensive for mass deployment.”

Shale gas

Remsol concludes that, unless the UK energy policy better recognises the need for a diverse range of energy supplies in recycling, ‘there’s a real risk that reprocessing factories will relocate to other countries with lower energy costs and a more favourable policy environment’.

It also touches on the controversial issue of shale gas deployment. Carefully extracted shale gas could play an important role in powering the recycling sector of the circular economy, supplemented by ‘renewable gas’ harvested from landfills and the anaerobic digestion of food and farm waste, the report says.

But Court from the REA believes that, while shale gas might have a role to play, it is a ‘myth’ that there aren’t other sources of affordable, on-demand power. “Biomass power, for instance, can do the same job as shale gas but without fracking and fossil fuels,” said Court. “Government must improve the CHP arrangements under CfDs and introduce policy support for new dedicated biomass plants too.”

The policy paper comes just a few months after the launch of the European Commission’s ‘circular economy package’ which sets a stretching target of recycling or reusing 70% of municipal waste by 2030. Read more here.

REPORT: Powering the circular economy

Luke Nicholls

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie