Unlocking AD’s potential

As chief executive of the Anaerobic Digestion & Biogas Association (ADBA), Charlotte Morton is at the heart of a team pushing the organisation's plan to help remove the barriers to growth currently faced by the industry and to promote the benefits of AD. She speaks to Liz Gyekye about ADBA's challenges and de-carbonising farming.

Charlotte Morton is a woman on a mission. Morton, a former lawyer, has been chief executive of ADBA since the organisation’s inception in 2009 and has seen huge growth in the anaerobic digestion (AD) industry over the past few years.

Since featuring prominently in the Government’s vision for the future of waste treatment, as set out in Defra’s Waste Strategy 2007, AD has proved something of a rising star among waste treatment processes.

Consequently, a wide range of organisations – from farm sites to food processors – have set up systems to treat local organic wastes and take advantage of the resulting renewable energy by powering their own equipment or selling it back to the national grid.

According to data provided by WRAP there were 32 AD plants in the UK in 2009. Currently, there are around 148 operational sites and 308 AD sites under development.

“The industry grew about 39% last year. Most of my time was spent trying to promote the value of the industry and recognition of its potential,” Morton says. “We were constantly talking about the industry having the potential to do ‘x, y and z’ but now we are actually delivering. We are delivering renewable energy.” Based on likely waste feedstock resources, AD could deliver between 40 Terawatt hours (TWh) of energy by 2020, according to figures from DECC.

In fact, Morton would like to see around 2,000 to 3,000 AD plants in the UK in the next five to ten years.

However, the AD industry was not Morton’s first career plan. Originally a lawyer she later founded WhizzGo, the pay-by-the-hour car hire business which soon became the UK’s largest national car club.

The move to AD was, in actual fact, an accident. She happened upon AD when she met a university friend who was married to the former ADBA chairman Lord Redesdale. He needed help setting up the trade body and Morton offered to help with legal agreements.

She says that AD “completely fits with things I care about” and she was “happy to have landed up in it by accident”. She says that growing up in Hampshire she had always cared about the environment: “I’ve always felt that we have to look after nature. We always try to dominate nature but we should try not to – we should work with it.”

Morton says she is passionate about the environment and sees the drive to work towards a circular economy as a fascinating challenge. “What drives behaviour today has to change radically and market forces will not deliver that,” she explains.

She has lobbied hard to get the Government to give financial support to the industry in the form of Feed-in-Tariffs (FiTs) subsidy rates for electricity generated through AD and has had “success there”.

Morton says that the transport industry is already recognising that they can get biomethane from the AD process and is supporting the AD sector because of this. And, it’s an ideal way to help de-carbonise the agricultural sector too.

She has also worked hard to promote the value of the industry and get increased recognition of the sector. She says: “A lot more people have heard of AD, particularly at political level, than before. It’s a tricky sell.”

Here, her legal background has been brought to bear, helping her to drive forward changes and formulate strong arguments to convince leading political figures to support AD.

Her next challenge is to see more AD plants in the UK and to de-carbonise farming, as well as doing the day-to-day job of ensuring that ADBA maximises the potential of the anaerobic digestion and biogas industry.

This includes ensuring a supportive regulatory environment with appropriate standards, training and finance is created to secure the industry’s future.

“If you integrate AD into farming, for example, not only could you use AD to recycle farm waste in a better way, you could extract energy that the farm could use for its own operations.”

Morton explains that transport forms a large part of carbon emissions in farming. According to figures from DECC, agriculture causes 9% of the UK’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A small proportion of this is due to energy used for fuel and heating.

She says that biomethane produced from the AD process can be used for fuel in the vehicles. “This is just a fabulous story from a farming point of view as well as recycling the nutrients back into the soil to grow for food. Growing crops for AD is also part of the cycle.”

Morton says that she is impressed by Scotland and Wales focusing on source-segregating food waste. She says that England should do the same because it helps to “reduce contamination levels and gives you a quality product”.

She also explains that the Government needs to commit to long-term decarbonisation targets and a “commitment to financial incentives that will support the sector and commitment to making the most of resources, which means source-segregating food waste for example”.

All in all, Morton sees huge potential in the AD sector in helping to tackle climate change and de-carbonise the planet. She is keen to keep on lobbying Government about the issues surrounding AD. Morton concludes: “I am very delighted to see a lot of operating companies and I can’t wait to see more AD plants. I could talk about AD until the cows come home.”

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