Energy from waste: avoiding power cuts

4th October 2010

Avoiding power cuts

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  • Renewable ,
  • Generation



Waste to energy could go far in meeting the UK's future energy needs says David Weaver.

It appears that the last Labour Government did not take seriously the threat of energy shortages occurring in the UK, with a lack of electricity to fulfil the demand in this country being the most critical.

Indeed, there have not been any large-scale investments into the electricity industry around the globe since the heady days of the privatisation of utilities in many industrialised countries - led by the UK, the biggest and most complex of them all.

Following the UK privatisation of its electricity and more significantly the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), a feeding fest was spawned. Three major generating companies were formed, National Power, Powergen and Scottish Power, as well as a number of regional distribution companies (discos).

These companies competed with a large number of American, Asian and European Independent Power Producers (IPP) to acquire assets, until they themselves were acquired by foreign interests.

Thus in the 1980s and 1990s, obligation to supply was replaced by market forces. These were driven by commercial value added by the shareholders of the various companies; including the weighted average cost of capital, the ability to raise project financing and ‘Build Own Operate' structures - all adding to the attraction for these IPPs to make a significant return on their investment.

Then government intervention drove down the traded electricity tariff to such a low recoverable price that commercial investment was unsustainable. This resulted in low electricity prices; however, many projects went out of business and left banks owning power stations that they didn't want.

This led to the supply-demand margin reducing from a significant safety margin to a risky thin one, affecting security of supply.

By the late 1990s/early 2000s, most power generation companies and discos in the UK had become foreign owned. The Government ignored the reduced security of our supply margin and systematically refused to introduce meaningful incentives for developers to invest in new alternative power plants. Coupled with the fact that most large-base load power plants in the UK had already reached or were past their life expectancy meant we had a serious issue to deal with. In simple terms what could happen is that as the large power stations close down, there is nothing to replace them.


There are currently 19 nuclear reactors in 10 power plants in the UK providing approximately 20 per cent of the UK's electricity supply. The previous government decided that a new generation of nuclear power stations was the answer.

However, there are a number of issues that need to be considered. Even if we were to commission new stations today, each one takes 15 years to become fully operational. By this time, the nuclear power stations built in the 1990s, such as Sizewell B and Horsham B, will be well over 30 years old and candidates for closure.

Other nuclear plants at Hartlepool, Hunterston, Hinkley and Horsham are even further past their ‘use-by-date'. Therefore, out of the 19 nuclear reactors in Britain only five will still be operational after 2020, meaning a loss of 6.5GWe (gigawatts of electricity) capacity from this power source alone.

In addition, large coal-fired plants, such as Drax, Fiddlers Ferry, Ferrybridge, Rugeley, Didcot and Eggborough are already over 30 years old and have significant issues with carbon and sulphur pollution. This results in a minimum loss of 10GWe of power plant capacity from the system with no replacement.

Another prominent issue not often discussed is the cost of nuclear plants. Granted it is very cheap to operate once built as fuel does not need changing on a regular basis, but what about the capital costs and the decommissioning costs? The average build cost is estimated at US$3,000 per KW, compared to combined gas turbine plants costing roughly $850 to $1,000 per KW installed.

The Government has addressed this issue by recommending developers raise enough funds in the initial capital cost to also cover decommissioning the nuclear power plant at the end of its lifetime. However, this could equate to $6 billion.

Obviously we must be aware of emissions and efficient use of energy resources. Each power station fuel feedstock has its own unique emission issues and is being used faster than it is regenerated. Or is that true?


Sizewell B is one of the nuclear power stations due for closure

What about considering alternative fuels and new technologies for producing renewable energy. As a nation our waste generated will double by 2050, and councils are already struggling with landfill caps and penalties imposed. Currently, we send 90 million tonnes of domestic, commercial or industrial waste to landfill every year. A significant proportion (between 40 per cent and 50 per cent) of this is made up of organic or plastic material which is both difficult to recycle and contains potential energy that can be released (the rest of this waste being inert metals, glass or building rubble).

Taking an estimated average calorific value of this waste of 10MJ/kg, this equates to around 100,000GWhrs of potential energy sent to landfill every year. With a recovery efficiency of 40 per cent, this would be enough to supply electricity to over eight million homes and the equivalent of around 4GWe of generation capacity. In addition, thermal energy from decentralised waste to energy plants can potentially be used for heating. So, why not use that waste for fuel?

We now have new technologies that can dispose of waste efficiently, with a much smaller effect on the environment than standard power plant technology. We should have a zero landfill policy where landfills become a thing of the past. Methane gas emitted from landfills is up to 25 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide. We have the technology to capture the methane gas and turn it into clean liquid fuel.

In addition, we can divert all incoming waste to sorting banks, remove recyclable waste and use the rest as feedstock in waste to energy units such as advanced pyrolysis technology.

What are the advantages? These power plants can be built in large numbers and capacities within 18 months. They use natural materials, ultra low emissions, they are cheaper than conventional power stations to build and do not leave behind a legacy of nuclear decontamination.

The life expectancy can be easily and cost effectively extended and they can be built low rise and blended within a city landscape. As there are no visible emissions, high emissions stacks are not required, and they produce little if no noise or smell.

This policy provides a back-to-nature closure of the environmental and energy cycle at low cost and fast build, removing the growing problem and cost of waste and removing landfills.

Why has this not been done already? The Government is only in power by financial and voter support. It is not in the interests of big business such as oil majors and conventional power companies to go down this route as it will impact on their businesses.

In addition the Government has not woken up to the new technologies available. Regulated generator licences are only available to the big registered companies and who are they? French, German, Spanish, Italian and American!

Waste to energy can make a significant contribution to the electricity shortfall from the closure of old nuclear and coal-fired power plants, but it cannot replace all of it.

Nevertheless, combined with the now maturing wind and solar generation industries and new emerging renewable technologies, such as wave and tidal, the UK can achieve both its energy and low emission targets.


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