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28 November 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 2:06pm

Neighbourhood warmth

Heat produced by energy from waste plants can provide the basis for district heating programmes.

By Mike Reynolds

If the United Kingdom is serious about delivering a more sustainable, circular economy, then it would do well to explore the opportunities presented by the burgeoning energy from waste (EfW) market. EfW refers to a type of incineration that involves burning rubbish, which would otherwise be destined for a landfill, at high temperatures in order to produce electricity.

The introduction of landfill diversion targets in the 1990s has helped give rise to a new generation of EfW plants in the UK. The consultancy firm Tolvik predicts that the UK will have the capacity to treat almost 17 million tonnes of residual waste through EfW plants within four years. This could help to manage and process waste locally, rather than spending huge sums on shipping it abroad.

Culturally, meanwhile, the public consciousness around climate change has increased, and people are gradually taking more steps to prevent, reuse, and recycle their waste. But even if residual waste decreases, it can’t be eliminated entirely, which is why it is important for the UK to be more responsible and economical in how it deals with its rubbish.

And this rubbish represents a further opportunity in terms of its application as a heat source. Rather than being released into the atmosphere, any heat produced from EfW can be captured and channelled in insulated pipes to places where people need warmth. If managed and distributed properly, our research has found, this could help to supply heat for around six million UK households (roughly 15 million people), and go  some way towards supporting the government’s target to stop using gas-fired boilers in new-build homes from 2025.

District heating projects that comprise pipes, pumps, and centralised heating technology are becoming more common on the continent. These projects are usually managed in partnership between local authorities and private-sector energy providers, and include some real success stories. For example, Westpoort Warmte, a joint venture between Amsterdam’s Waste and Energy Company and Vattenfall, started the construction of district heating networks in 1994. By 2013, the use of district heating from waste incineration had reduced CO2 emissions by 24,000 tonnes a year.

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In the UK, individual households tend to have their own boilers, and there is work to be done to raise consumer awareness of the benefits of heat networks. In Europe, many neighbourhoods have their hot water and heat piped straight into their houses from one larger, and more efficient, centralised tank. The excess heat created by electricity generating plants, factories, and public transport is fed into the network, reducing waste and carbon emissions, all the while cutting fuel consumption and saving people money on their bills.

As nearly half of the energy in the UK is used for heating purposes, and a third of UK emissions comes from heating, the need to decarbonise this process has taken on a greater significance in the fight against climate change, and indeed the battle against fuel poverty.

Waste should be viewed as an asset on local authorities’ doorsteps. The average UK household pays £200 a year to cover its waste collection and recycling, but is it really cost-effective to pay someone to move waste from one place to another, which in itself incurs transport costs? Is it cost-effective to ship recycling to another country, to be treated and repurposed, only to be shipped back to the UK and reused as another product a year later, only to be thrown away.

As a matter of social responsibility, we need to think holistically and get better at managing our own waste, rather than relying on others. District heating projects offer the chance to take ownership of waste and turn it into something useful. It would help to close the loop that exists with waste production and recycling cycles.

So, what can the government do to help? First, from an infrastructure perspective, the construction of new EfW plants should be more strategic. And legislation should ensure that plants are located in places where they can meet the local heat demand. A lot of EfW developers are focused on solving the waste problem, without appreciating the potential role they could play in solving the wider heat problem or cutting emissions.

If national government can recognise the utility of waste, it could help local authorities to work with EfW developers on a long-term basis. EfW should be located not simply on one side of a big city, but on sites that are able to serve as many households as possible, and with good transport links nearby.

In the UK, Vattenfall is not looking to enter the EfW market itself, but rather we view ourselves as a non-competitive partner for the industry, to help it integrate with local authorities’ heating needs. We intend to procure heat from EfW developers and then help to distribute that heat across towns and cities, as we have already done with our previous third-party projects in Berlin, Amsterdam, and Uppsala.

Where EfW developers may be experts in waste disposal, Vattenfall is a specialist in customer service and designing, building, operating, and managing a heat network. Equipped with decades of experience, we feel that we can act as a bridge between the private and public sector.

Sustainable development, ultimately, means meeting the needs of this generation without compromising on the needs of those to come. EfW represents a chance to address two key challenges – power and heat – without compromising on quality or performance.

Mike Reynolds is managing director at Vattenfall UK.