Turning up the heat on Energy-from-Waste

Written by Jacob Hayler

The United Kingdom currently employs around sixty Energy-from-Waste (EfW) plants providing a vital sanitation service to society, while diverting non-recyclable waste from landfill and generating energy - a significant proportion of which is derived from renewable feedstock.


Unsurprisingly, these plants also produce a large amount of heat in the process of generating electrical energy but the UK is lagging behind many of its European neighbours in harnessing the potential of this heat.

Currently, less than a quarter of operational UK plants export the heat they generate, compared with the vast majority across Europe, despite the fact that modern UK plants are CHP-enabled and capable of exporting heat by design, subject to the availability of a suitable heat network and offtake users within close enough proximity to the facility.

Given the high temperature of the EfW process, these plants are particularly well suited to providing heat to non-domestic users with lower heat efficiency, or industrial users with high heat demand, and heat networks are already in use in areas such as Redcar for example, where industrial users at the Wilton International industrial complex are making use of heat supplied by neighbouring EfW infrastructure.

Bearing in mind that decarbonising industrial and domestic heating is one of the highest hurdles to overcome in the race against time to achieve net-zero carbon emissions, it is clear that the opportunity to make best use of heat from our EfW plants is being squandered.

In part, this is a product of our planning system and a lack of strategic coordination for energy-from-waste infrastructure at a national level. The location of plants is determined by a range of market and political factors, which is why regional capacity gaps for waste treatment exist. Furthermore, as applications are determined locally, the planning process can often push facilities into remote locations to avoid perceived conflict with communities – limiting their potential for heat offtake - whereas in countries like Sweden and The Netherlands, where there is greater historic acceptance of this technology, EfW plants connected to district heating networks have been fully integrated into cities to provide both heat and power to residents.

A large proportion of the United Kingdom’s Energy-from-Waste infrastructure is operated by members of the Environmental Services Association (ESA) and the ESA has been working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Department for International Trade (DIT) and the Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE) to identify the challenges associated with the delivery of heat from EfW plants to heat networks, as well as to explore and quantify the heat potential of EfW infrastructure.

In the March 2020 Budget, the Chancellor announced that the Government would set aside £270 million for a “Green Heat Network Scheme”, which is welcome and will help build the network infrastructure to deliver EfW heat, and the ESA is now considering how members may promote EfW heat to network developers and potential customers.

Energy-from-waste has a greater role to play in pursuit of a net-zero carbon economy by maximising the efficiency of plants, reducing their carbon outputs, and by helping other sectors to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Government should recognise this role in its decarbonisation efforts and subsequently seek to remove the barriers to viable heat networks through vision and a clear long-term policy framework.

This might include, for example, changes to statutory powers and planning requirements to facilitate the approval and delivery of heat networks; coordination of spatial planning for EfW infrastructure at a national level and incentives to provide some financial support to facilitate the development of low carbon heat infrastructure, and to reduce/underwrite some of the commercial risk.

It is more resource-efficient to make use of these existing heat sources before considering new sources of low-carbon heat, but some clear direction and ambition from government is required to make this a reality.

Jacob Hayler is an economist and Executive Director of the Environmental Services Association (ESA) - the voice of the UK’s resource and waste management industry.