Energy from Waste and the Circular Economy

by Emily Prestwood and Martin Freer

In spring 2020, Birmingham Energy Institute and the Energy Research Accelerator released their policy commission report exploring how energy from waste (EfW) can be integrated into regional and national circular economy strategies, and setting out the economic and research opportunities for the Midlands. A series of roundtable events with national and regional politicians, industry, business and environmental stakeholders accompanied the launch. These provided opportunities for feedback on the report’s proposals and for exploring opportunities in both the East and West Midlands to develop systems thinking on EfW. One year on, in advance of COP26 in Glasgow, we reflect on the findings of the report and the current position of energy from waste in circular economy and net-zero strategies and policies. We alsoconsider the future opportunities for research and industrial engagement for the University of Birmingham.

The waste industry has long held that EfW is effectively carbon neutral because it displaces the production of greenhouse gas emission from landfilling waste (including the more potent GhG methane - approximately 30 times more harmful as a greenhouse gas than CO2) to produce a necessary resource - energy.  However, this argument is increasingly hard to defend because the carbon intensity of grid electricity declines as more renewable generation is brought online. As our policy commission report argued, without capturing waste heat, which only 1 in 5 UK plants currently do, the carbon intensity of EfW is second only to coal combustion due to indiscriminate incineration of all waste at EfW facilities. In particular, the incineration of non-biogenic waste, including large quantities of plastic, is where the landfill displacement argument really ‘breaks down’. From an emissions perspective, we would arguably do better to bury materials that don’t break down quickly rather than incinerating them in inefficient EfW plants. That said, one then needs to consider the leaching of those materials into the wider environment.

This argument was central to the policy commission report and informed the following high level recommendations: Existing and new EfW plants should exploit waste heat potential in order to significantly reduce the carbon intensity of each unit of energy produced; there should be a focus on developing second-generation EfW technologies including AD, pyrolysis and gasification, which turn waste into molecules and products, as well as energy; there should be scaled-up roll out of, and further R&D into, small-scale carbon capture technologies that turn CO2  emissions from EfW into products.

Politically, there is a challenge for local and regional authorities considering the role of EfW as part of their energy system, portfolio of energy assets, and zero-carbon circular economy strategy. As environmental campaigners and researchers reasonably point out, retaining, and possibly expanding, EfW facilities creates a demand for waste streams to incinerate and demotivates actions higher up the waste hierarchy to reduce, reuse, repair and recycle waste rather than using it for energy recovery. There is a reluctance within some local authorities to show an ongoing reliance on EfW to deal with household and commercial waste, though others such as Leeds and Nottingham City Council already have EfW as part of their energy strategy. In the West Midlands, the Combined Authority (WMCA) have initiated ‘Kickstarting the West Midlands’ Circular Economy’ to better understand the opportunities for developing a circular economy approach across the whole region.

There is a potential opportunity to make EfW more circular as part of a heating decarbonisation strategy; heating accounts for around 40% of energy utilisation and one third of the UK’s carbon emissions. For areas of high population and building density, district heating is a preferred option. Many cities across the Midlands region have well-developed district heating schemes installed or planned. At the moment, most of these schemes are reliant on combined heat and power (CHP) plants, fuelled by natural gas. For district heating to be lower carbon and more sustainable, there is a need to transition from methane to hydrogen for heat and power generation, but most crucially, to also utilise waste heat from EfW plants.

Using waste heat from existing and planned EfW facilities should be a priority in local governments’ planning and procurement processes. There are examples where this is happening: Coventry City Council have developed a scheme which transports heat from the EfW plant 6.6 km to the city centre; in Stoke, they are developing a scheme which would combine EfW, geothermal and industrial waste heat. Progress has not been universal, as evidenced by the ongoing challenges integrating the Birmingham EfW plant at Tyseley into the city’s district heating system, where optimising energy recovery for both heat and power has not been incorporated into the procurement process for the future contract of the EfW plant.

This illustrates the competing challenges that local authorities wrestle with in setting priorities where net zero and energy efficiency, waste processing, and the circular economy are not considered holistically and decisions and operations remain siloed. The limited capacity of local government, due to the economies of austerity cuts, means that they have to prioritise the delivery of key services and have a reduced ability to deal with complex issues that cut across departments and political portfolios. There is a need for greater devolution to the regions of responsibility and resources to support the development of infrastructure that can simultaneously and synergistically evolve the circular economy and carbon reductions. The WMCA’s 5 year plan and the associated discussions linked to devolution provide a basis for creating the required platform at the regional level to develop and deliver a circular economy and net-zero plan across the West Midlands.

Even with better utilisation of the waste heat from EfW plants, there will continue to be questions about the sustainability of incineration for waste processing. Greater segregation of household and commercial food and organic waste will enable a reaccelerated roll out of anaerobic digestion and the production of biogas to displace natural gas. This may be an option for CHP plants, alongside the production of hydrogen using steam methane reforming as the hydrogen economy grows. The digestate from anaerobic digestion can also be used in the production of fertilizer in a process which captures CO2. In addition, the removal of the organic fraction from waste streams reduces the production of methane, which, from an emissions perspective, makes landfill more attractive.

EfW clearly does have benefits, as outlined, if the energy potential is fully captured into the energy system. Increasingly, this means focussing on heat rather than electricity. However, for EfW to be fully circular efficient and affordable, carbon capture technology for EfW facilities and technologies will need to be developed. The recent announcement that Veolia will work with Carbon Clean to become the first UK operator of EfW facilities to demonstrate the latest carbon capture technology is an important development for the sustainability of this sector and the evolution of EfW towards zero carbon.

The UK Government’s Ten-Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution provided a strong vision towards net zero, with a heavy focus on hydrogen, nuclear, offshore wind, the natural environment and other key sectors. However, it is rather quiet on how to integrate the circular economy. As the Birmingham Energy Institute and Energy Research Accelerator’s Energy from Waste and the Circular Economy report identified, there are plenty of ways that the benefits of a circular economy can be integrated into energy systems, and indeed, would benefit the Ten-Point Plan.

Production of hydrogen and substitute transport and aviation fuels are both possible from the processing of plastic, biomass and organic waste streams through pyrolysis and gasification processes. There are a number of companies who are scaling up the demonstration of such technologies, ensuring that they are both economically and commercially viable. Pyrolysis is a difficult process to manage due to the thermal environment required and the residues created. As a result, it has had a slightly tortuous journey to commercialisation. Even now, funding has typically been for the capital development of the plant, and has not extended to the operational costs of performing the extended validation tests required to de-risk the proposition for investors. This is a fundamental weakness in the UK’s approach to the transition of this sector and there is a risk that UK companies leading in this sector will not reach full commercialisation. One year on from the publication of the policy commission report, there remains a strong need for a national coordinated support programme for this sector to ensure that a key element of the circular economy and energy from waste is delivered. 

Many of the benefits of integrating the circular economy and energy and fuels production can only be found through co-location of technologies, waste streams and consumers. The Resource Recovery Cluster (RRC) concept set out in the policy commission report shows how co-location means that the waste heat and gases from EfW processes can be inputs to other processes. They can also be maximised to be of greatest value in terms of energy vectors, whilst reducing the need for transportation and subsequent efficiency losses. There are several emerging examples of this type of synergistic operation. Tyseley Energy Park (TEP) has a biomass plant that gasifies waste wood, creating green electricity, which in turn is distributed on-site through a private wire. A low-carbon refuelling station at TEP has a 3 MW electrolyser for the production of hydrogen for vehicles, including a hydrogen bus fleet, powered using the green electricity.

TEP is also the location for the Birmingham Energy Innovation Centre (BEIC) and a business incubation facility, which again can utilise the green electricity produced by the biomass plant. The BEIC will house a range of energy technology programmes including energy storage and hydrogen and fuel cells, and will provide a support platform for a waste-to-fuels programme in collaboration with the Fraunhofer Institute. Another key research development at TEP is battery and magnets recycling, with University of Birmingham academics developing techniques for the recycling of electric vehicle lithium-ion batteries and rare earth element magnets from motors and wind turbines. The ability to integrate these research programmes in one place enables the exploitation of TEPs different energy vectors, including green electricity, heat and hydrogen. The business incubator will accommodate SMEs who are developing new energy or waste processing technologies. The site is growing organically into a RRC.

Post-industrial sites are ideal locations for RRCs. The policy commission focussed on East Midlands coal power stations nearing the end of their life, but with significant infrastructure, such as high-capacity grid connections, which could be redeployed and developed as RRCs. Ratcliffe-on-Soar is one such location and the site owners, Uniper, are currently looking into developing an ecosystem around an EfW plant that would include hydrogen production. This site is ideally located next to East Midlands airport, the M1 and M42 intersection and lies adjacent to the HS2 extension. The development is integrated into the plans of the East Midlands Development Corporation and links to the Freeport application.

Locations such as Tyseley and Ratcliffe have the potential to transform the way the Midlands manages its resources, waste processing and energy production, creating ecosystems that support R&D, business growth and the commercialisation of innovative technologies, and with knock-on social, environmental and economic benefits for the surrounding area and communities. These sites can become beacons for the rest of the UK, showcasing how energy from waste can be fully integrated as part of regional circular economy and net-zero strategies and solutions.