Energy from waste – underrated?

Craig Edgar | 21 Oct 2015 | Comments

The UK produces around 200 million tonnes of waste a year, about three tonnes for every man, woman and child in the country, and dealing with this waste in a responsible and sustainable manner is a major societal issue.

Although the recycling rate from households is now at almost 44% and overall the amount of rubbish going to landfill is falling, finding ways of using the remaining waste is a huge challenge for industry and government.

In 2010, we were left with 43 million tonnes of commercial and industrial (C&I) waste and 29 million tonnes of household waste. There are a number of factors to take into account to estimate how much electricity could be made from this amount of waste – power plant technology selection, waste composition and the amount of recyclable material such as plastic that can be removed – but a reasonable estimate is around 50 terrawatt hours (TWh). In context, that’s about 12% of the UK’s total energy use in 2012 (376TWh). However, in 2012 only 2.5TWh of electricity (0.7%) in the UK was generated from this source.

Using waste to generate electricity and heat could have major implications for the UK energy landscape. So, why are we under-exploiting this energy source?

There are three major factors which have had a role to play in why this technology has not been adopted more widely and more quickly – poor public image, cost and technology.

Public Image

The mere mention of an “incinerator” is guaranteed to raise eyebrows and cause concerns amongst locals. Whilst there is perhaps reasonable justification for this reaction, the products of the combustion process can be treated and mitigated. The main impact from an Energy from Waste plant is from traffic movements as there is little reasonable alternative means of getting the waste to site, and odour complaints are common and difficult to mitigate.

This means that the planning and approvals process is difficult and prolonged. One of Atkins’ clients started construction on a plant in 2014 which had been in the planning and appeals process for over 14 years.

This extreme sensitivity to public opinion means that many of the Energy from Waste plants currently being constructed are architecturally innovative and seek to educate and engage the community. One really innovative facility is the Amager Bakke plant in Denmark. This plant is set to start generating electricity in 2017 and will house Denmark’s first ski-slope on its roof!


One recent project Atkins worked on cost £155m to build and will process 200,000 tonnes a year for 12MW of power. Compared to a traditional gas fired power station that is a lot of money for not a lot of output. But it is difficult to compare the two types of facility as more than two-thirds of the cost of that example is associated with waste recycling, sorting and fuel preparation.

The government’s support scheme of long-term Contracts for Difference (CfD) provides a certain level of financial security for those that qualify as advanced gasification / pyrolysis facilities. The most recent DECC CfD Allocation Round in February 2015 awarded a contract to three advanced conversion facilities and two energy from waste with CHP (combined heat and power) plants.

One of these, an 11MW project has a strike price of £119.89 per megawatt hour, which is about three times the current wholesale electricity price. As an emerging technology, this level of support is needed to help mature the industry and its right that government is supporting the expansion of energy from waste plant in order to bring the costs down in the longer term.


As just mentioned, there are a range of technologies that are new and emerging to produce energy from waste without direct combustion. These advanced thermal treatment technologies (ATT) can use either pyrolysis (the decomposition of material in the absence of oxygen) and/or gasification (conversion of material in carbon monoxide, hydrogen and carbon dioxide at high temperature without combustion) to process the raw waste material.

The gaseous fuel made during the conversion process can be stored, injected back into the gas grid, or perhaps more interestingly, could be used to make hydrogen to power fuel cells.

Two projects Atkins has been involved with will provide power and heat to almost 130,000 homes once completed. Air Products is about to open the world’s largest advanced plasma gasification plants near Stockton-On-Tees and a second adjacent scheme is nearing completion. Together they’ll provided energy from 700,000 tonnes of waste for 100,000 homes. Energos, in Glasgow, will deliver an advanced conversion facility as part of the Glasgow Recycling and Renewable Energy Centre to power 20,000 homes and heat another 8,000.

Current advanced thermal treatment facilities tend to be much smaller than traditional incinerator, mainly due to being in a demonstration phase although there are some larger facilities that with the CfD should be ready towards the end of the decade. ATT has the potential to operate over a much wider range of scale than incinerators, from smaller, flexible units to large scale industrial size facilities, and have the potential to generate more low-carbon power through greater efficiency.

Despite the challenges that the technology faces in the immediate term, the general global move towards using lower carbon forms of electrical generation means that we are likely to see increased use of waste as fuel. It fulfils a number of objectives that the UK government has set out from diverting waste from landfill to producing more non-intermittent energy domestically.

For Atkins, this means the chance to solve challenging and novel technical problems whilst helping our clients develop infrastructure that will contribute to helping the UK meet its renewable generation commitments and dispose of our waste in a sustainable and environmentally responsible manner.