Veolia: energy and heat are the missing pieces of the circular economy jigsaw

EXCLUSIVE: Businesses are missing out on the benefits of taking a closed-loop approach to energy and heat consumption due to being too "hung-up" on waste-driven models, the head of circular economy at Veolia has claimed.

Speaking exclusively to edie ahead of next week’s edie Live exhibition (scroll down for details), Forbes McDougall claimed that circular economy models will only drive business operations if they account for the “three pillars of sustainability” – waste, energy and heat.

“A lot of circular economy discussions are around waste and materials, and there’s less discussion on energy and water which is a shame,” McDougall said. “There are good circular solutions for energy and water challenges out there that are already proving successful.

“You can’t continue to consume huge amounts of unrenewable energy to make products, so there’s going to be a big uptake of green energy in the manufacturing process in the near future.”

McDougall alluded to business model shake-ups from the likes of beverage company Diageo as examples of how companies are beginning to embrace the less prominent aspects of the circular economy, and using them to drive business.

Diageo’s Glendullan factory in Scotland can produce around 8,000MW hours of thermal energy using a closed-loop model to generate two million cubic metres of biogas from waste produce in the facility using anaerobic digestion. To add an extra element of reuse to this jigsaw, Diageo also generates water from the process, while excess ash produced from the furnaces and burning process gets turned into SEPA accredited pellets to be used as fertiliser to grow the grain for whiskey production.

“It’s circular across the three pillars, which is good because there’s a big hang up on circular economy and waste and we’re missing a couple of tricks,” McDougall said.

Centre circle

Diageo’s successful implementation of a “three-pillar” circular economy model is now being implemented by Veolia itself. In an attempt to reinvigorate the Northern Powerhouse – within which more than 80 UK organisations wants to lead a clean energy revolution – Veolia chose Leeds as the site for a flagship energy-from-waste (EfW) plant, which the firm says will provide multiple boosts for the city.

With the aim of making the city “a hub for circular economy innovation“, the new Recycling and Energy Recovery (RERF) facility was completed three months ahead of schedule last month.  The plant can cater 165,200 tonnes of black bin residential black bin waste per year, which accounts for 99% of the waste produced in Leeds annually.

Not only will this process save more than £200m in landfill charges over the next 25 years and reduce carbon emissions by around 62,000 tonnes annually, but a new combustion process will create enough energy from waste to power around 20,000 homes each year once fully operational.

With a minimum of 10% of black bin waste being extracted and recycled at the RERF facility, the waste goes through this combustion process which produces steam to be used to create electricity, which is then sent to the grid, while the remaining ash that is produced is recycled to create construction aggregate.

The RERF facility also uses a “living wall” which hosts biodiversity habitats for wildlife and contributes to Leeds’ ’green corridor’. The living wall is also a useful tool for collecting and harvesting rainwater to be used on site.

“The key for me is that this is another piece in the circular economy jigsaw by maximising the recovery of materials, energy and heat,” McDougall said. “We want to make and keep green energy available to the UK grid. I think, in the long-term, big ERFs will become obsolete because a circular economy will produce less residual waste, so smaller and more specialised facilities will be needed.”

Second life

With Veolia’s executive vice-president Estelle Brachlianoff previously telling edie that the company wants to “extract everything we can… to give it a second life”, McDougall is anticipating a plethora of new, disruptive business models to be introduced, all of which lend themselves to a circular economy.

McDougall noted how the booming popularity of data management, and the dawn of ‘Industry 4.0’ through the Internet of Things, will pave the way for more integrated business opportunities that will “drive the circular economy forwards”.

“A lot of new concepts being introduced are circular,” McDougall concluded. “Circular economy is driving innovation, but it’s almost more important that it drives new business models in the economy where consumers buy services rather than products.

“However, we’re talking about changing an entire economy from the way we do business to the way we want to do business, which is huge. It’s a massive change to how the global economy works and normal business concepts still apply. Technology has to be viable and projects must meet business standards.

“We need to develop business models, not just in resource gathering but in manufacturing and retail, which allow us to develop a means to become circular.”

Forbes McDougall at edie Live

Forbes McDougall will be speaking on the Resource Efficiency Theatre at edie Live next week, discussing the benefits of a circular economy approach, alongside associates from Whitbread and Tech UK.

If you manage your company’s energy, sustainability, environmental or corporate responsibility, then two days at edie Live will give you a free pass to all the learning, peer-to-peer networking, innovative suppliers and inspiration you need to drive sustainability through your organisation.

View the full edie Live agenda and register to attend for free here.

Matt Mace

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