Plea to Ministers - don’t fiddle while the waste burns

As forecasters predict a cold winter and the National Grid admits that the gap between energy needs and available power supply will be stretched more thinly than ever, Neil Grundon, deputy chairman of Grundon Waste Management, remembers the power cuts of the early 1970s and makes the case for home-grown energy from waste:

Neil Grundon, deputy chairman, Grundon Waste Management
Neil Grundon, deputy chairman, Grundon Waste Management

I remember the excitement of getting my own torch in the 1970s and mum lighting up the house with candles as another power outage hit our road. Quite what the average 18-year-old would make of it today if they were unable to charge their mobile and WhatsApp and Instagram started crashing around them, I don’t know. Would it even topple a government? Probably.

Talking of governments, over the years, I have often asked myself what they are for – that is, besides keeping the lights on.

Keeping us safe? Yes, that’s certainly a tick in the box for me, we are often told that parties seldom win elections, rather they lose them, and an attack on the realm is a sure fire way of losing your electorate.

Keeping rubbish off the streets? Certainly, you only have to visit those nations whose waste system has broken down to know how an electorate reacts in such situations.

That’s three answers – keep the power on, stop the baddies and pick up the rubbish. Add in some clean water, sewage disposal, and you are off to a flying start.

How a government manages these three policies can, and will, inadvertently kill the planet if it gets them wrong, which is why we elect parliaments to debate and decide the direction of travel for us all.

And on that point, credit where credit is due, the Government has done exactly that recently with the decision at Hinkley Point to provide the UK with 3,200 megawatts of low carbon nuclear electricity.

While that may be a step forward in terms of energy supply, it is more than can be said for our UK waste policy.

It seems ridiculous to me that we currently allow three million tonnes of waste to be burnt at UK taxpayers’ expense in power plants in mainland Europe, instead of using it ourselves to fill that ever-increasing energy gap.

The National Grid’s projections suggest that the week of January 11 will give us the greatest concern if there is a particularly cold spell, forcing it to call on reserves and even possibly importing more electricity from Europe.

Which, if we’re to experience a return to the blackouts of the 70s, would seem rather ironic, given we’re effectively shipping some of the power to them in the form of waste in the first place.

At the moment, we have politicians pondering the various merits of different types of waste management systems – from Anaerobic Digestion to Gasification, Advanced Moving Grate technology to so-called Alternate Thermal Treatment – and arguing about whose half a megawatt is more efficient than another.

At a time when Energy from Waste doesn’t even figure in the Government’s plans for electricity production, that sort of debate is rather like comparing catapults to cannons and missing the point.

Of course, within the waste management industry we know our primary purpose is keeping the rubbish off the streets (note earlier point), but the fact is we have a golden opportunity to do so much more with it than bury it unsorted in a sanitary landfill.

Having just returned from a fact-finding trip to Japan, I was impressed with the way they effectively use their incinerators as landfills in the middle of a city – they recognise waste as a valuable commodity and use it to generate power, perhaps we could take a leaf out of their book.

Moving forward is about more than just generating energy however. As an industry, we need the Government to take responsibility for managing emissions from this technology in the same way as they have done by choosing the low carbon nuclear route.

There have been real technological advances available in combustion technology and, if the industry is to take advantage of these, then it needs to be steered by Ministers who can tell us how much capacity will be available for disposing of waste and how the emissions will be regulated.

If, by keeping the rubbish off the streets, we can produce more base-load power from just 10 Energy from Waste plants the size of Lakeside EfW than the entire UK wind industry did on November 4 2015, then so much the better.

We have a huge opportunity to give the UK a competitive edge. As an industry and as a nation, we can’t afford to fiddle while our waste burns – be it in Rome or anywhere else.

The Lakeside Energy from Waste facility, a joint venture between Grundon Waste Management and Viridor
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