A very British Biomess

Waste-to-EnergyThere really is money to be made out of what we throw away. Although the old days of the rag’n’bone man are behind us we have modern equivalents; a few weeks ago an old van drove pulled into our cul de sac. It drove up and down. Then exited without stopping. It was one of those clothes-for-charity collection vans. For one second I felt a pang of guilt. Maybe I shouldn’t.

A few years ago a group of friends were talking about what to do with our waste. The topic of energy-from-waste came up. Someone pointed out that the problem with using waste to power our society is there will never be enough waste. Instead, the argument went, we should reduce our waste to nothing. It is a point well made in the book “Cradle to Cradle – Remaking the way we make things” by Michael Braungart and William McDonough (Random House 2009). The authors describe a circular economy working like nature: every “waste” output is a useful input to another economic process. In such an economic/technological mix there is no “waste” to be burnt. Everything would get hoovered up like the bags of rags going for the chap in the charity van. Everything would get re-used or up-cycled into something else.

I didn’t give it a second thought until I stumbled upon a story about alleged incinerator-to-energy ‘over-capacity’. It seems local government has become keen on incinerators that burn waste for energy. This seems sensible. Energy prices are rising and landfills are filling up. It seems like a win-win. But we have been told that there is a problem.

At an enquiry into the building of an incinerator in King’s Lynn it was revealed that to keep it going would require waste to be imported. The Saddlebow plant was intended to create electricity by burning about 250,000 tonnes of waste a year. Earlier, in a 2010 report in The Independent Newspaper:

“Experts question whether Britain will produce enough household waste to fuel energy-from-waste plants as the country improves its recycling efforts. And they warn that waste will have to be diverted from sustainable recycling schemes or imported from elsewhere to keep a rash of new planned waste incinerators working.”

A 2011 report by the International Solid Waste Association suggested we now have incinerator over-capacity across Europe. They warned that it would undermine efforts to recycle the waste-streams in conventional ways. Anti-incinerator groups from Sheffield to Croydon, repeated these claims in order to fend off the march of the incinerators.

In the UK we produce well over 1.5kg of waste per person per day. In the USA they produce over 2.5kg per person per day. So with all that waste to burn why would our incinerators go hungry? The story is more complicated. In a story from the Guardian in June 2013 it seems Norway now leads the way in turning waste into energy. What is more “UK cities pay to send rubbish to Norwegian incinerators”:

“The UK paid to send 45,000 tonnes of household waste from Bristol and Leeds to Norway between October 2012 and April this year.”

It seems us Brits don’t build incinerators because we will need to import the waste so, instead, we export it to somebody else to benefit. You couldn’t make it up. This seems a classic case of shooting ourselves in the foot. In fact, in the European race to burn-the-most-rubbish, Britain is now losing out.

“Waste to energy has become a preferred method of rubbish disposal in the EU, and there are now 420 plants in Europe equipped to provide heat and electricity to more than 20 million people. Germany ranks top in terms of importing rubbish, ahead of Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands.”

So what is going on? Let’s put aside the issue of euro-jealousy for a minute and face facts. If we don’t burn it here for energy then it will be exported. And WE will pay somebody else to burn it because it is cheaper than putting it in landfill. In our green and pleasant land it is easier to make the problem “go away” than turn waste into resource. Maybe it is something about us Brits. Have we yet the “cradle to cradle” economy? I doubt it.

There is no such thing as waste really. It is just stuff we don’t value any more. Such as the clothes-for-charity truck – we will eventually come up dry if we really valued what we throw away. Waste cannot power all of us. At least it benefits the Norwegians – but what is the sense it shipping it to Norway? It is our waste stream. This really touches on relocalisation and scale. We seem to have been convinced that our waste “problem” requires BIG solutions. We make is BIG so then we LOTS of waste to burn – so it runs out. So we find other things to burn – such as biomass.

Biomass is, essentially, wood. It can include such crops as Miscanthus which are quick-growing and very energy-dense. Miscanthus yields a whopping 63 MWh/ha. Compare that to what we traditionally consider as “biofuel” (bioethanol from wheat) that yields only 16MWh/ha. A MWh is 1000 x kWh. Your home might use around 10 to 15kWh per day in your home. So that is a lot of energy just waiting to be harvested. It literally grows on trees. However increasingly some environmentalists are questioning the use of biomass-to-power.

It kicked off last year when Greenpeace produced a report claiming biomass from forestry had a higher carbon footprint than coal. They reasoned that the forests would not be maintained sustainably and that the biomass would be burnt in large electricity power stations like Drax which would be wasteful. There then ensued a war if words between various anti-biomass groups and the industry’s defenders. The problem is essentially this (from the blog by Dr Raphael Slade, research fellow at Imperial College’s Centre for Energy Policy and Technology).:

“To meet the 2020 renewable energy target the UK is going to need biomass, and lots of it. The Department for Energy and Climate Change is hoping for an additional 20-38TWh of biomass electricity. This will require around 12-23 million dry tonnes of biomass, most of which will be imported as pellets from North America and burnt in converted coal-fired power plants.”

The problem is thus scale & the wrong technology: the key words here being “imported” & “coal-fired”. Don’t get me wrong: I am a big fan of biomass. It heats my home and has enormous advantages. We could probably heat 20% of all the homes in Britain with low-carbon biomass. It could all be produced in the UK sustainably using “waste” products from the forestry, building and furniture industries. In fact, where we are in the Chilterns we could produce quite a lot locally to benefit our own communities. But rather than doing that, we are going to make the problem “go away” and have somebody else’s community benefit.

This is what happens when big Government chase carbon budgets using the only tools they understand: BIG power stations. When you have a hammer everything is a nail. And it isn’t even the right hammer. Reflect for a moment on a quote I gave earlier which read “420 plants in Europe equipped to provide heat and electricity [from waste]” and compare it to the other quote about the UK using biomass in “converted coal-fired power plants“. The Europeans are using smaller, local-scale HEAT and power plants. They are plugged into District Heat networks so that none of the heat goes to waste from the power generation system. That “waste” heat warms people’s homes. The Europeans are literally light-years ahead of us in implementing this technology. The relevance to High Wycombe? One such plant was proposed with a District Heating Network for the Hughenden quarter development. It could benefit us all. But now it seems the fuel could be sucked into old coal-fired power plants in the interest of economies of scale.

The BIG British power stations being proposed for use with this imported biomass are wasteful because so much of the energy goes up in smoke as heat or in the distribution of the electricity to your home. If you cannot use the waste heat & electricity locally, within a small-scale local power & heat energy grid, then it is far better to simply burn the fuel to keep your home warm. This can be small scale, low-tech and local. Our Government is still trying to solve the problems of the 21st Century with the tools of the 19th Century. When faced with an opportunity to build small-scale, local, renewable, combined heat/power, distributed, low-carbon energy sources we choose old-fashioned, remote, centralised, mega-scale projects generating only electricity. It is like Soviet planning gone mad.

The problem now is that anti-biomass noise is growing to a crescendo. Mud sticks. The Environmentalists and the Whitehall minions have gone head-to-head and, in the process, vastly over-simplified the arguments. One of the biggest defenders of Biomass has been the REA (Renewable Energy Association) who (in apparent exasperation with the arguments) stated “the problem lies with bad forestry practices and not biomass-derived energy.” This is true. The essence of this argument is that we will be burning “waste” wood from production processes that harvested their principle feedstocks from sustainable forestry. Hence it is sustainable ‘re-use’ and that’s a GOOD thing. True – but it seems such arguments never end with the most rational argument winning. Sadly we will do what we do with waste incinerators: we’ll make the problem “go away” and simply export the biomass to another country or blow-it in some remote old coal-fired power station.

And the problem with “waste” is that there is no “away”. It’s our problem and it’s our opportunity. We reckon it is time for a better hammer.


About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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