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Waste to energy plants and the energy efficiency spotlight

Date: 13/10/2014 | Author: Chris Oldfield

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RDF and SRF producers are ultimately striving to create a sustainable fuel. However, to truly commit to and improve the UK’s ‘green’ agenda, should such operators place the energy efficiency of their WtE plants under greater scrutiny, questions Chris Oldfield.

Alternative fuel production is a growing trend in the UK. Export levels of RDF alone are said to have risen from just below 900,000 tonnes in 2012, to a staggering 1.5 million tonnes in 2013.

While admittedly we would like to see a greater proportion of the fuel being utilised domestically, this ever-growing waste to energy (WtE) activity is encouraging. After all, our fossil fuel stock is depleting. What’s more, for as long as we continue to live in a typically ‘throw away’ society, it is important that we are able to produce a valuable resource from the materials many people would simply discard as ‘rubbish’.

WtE operators therefore deserve great credit for their commitment to the UK’s sustainability agenda. Compliant with the principles of the waste hierarchy, they work hard to reuse and recycle as much as is economically and environmentally possible, before the residual matter is sent for energy recovery. Furthermore, 50 per cent of the material within a substance such as RDF can reportedly be classed as renewable energy, which further strengthens the ‘green’ credentials of their approach.

However, as plant designs and technology innovations progress apace, it is important to continually analyse how to enrich the potential environmental efficacy of WtE operations. Of course, the ability to achieve throughput quotas and strict alternative fuel specifications is paramount, in order to satisfy end user demand. But to truly commit to and improve the UK’s sustainability progress, the energy efficiency of the plant itself should also be considered.

By designing processes and commissioning technologies that lessen electricity consumption, for example, RDF and SRF manufacturers will reduce the parasitic load of their WtE plants. This opportunity to maximise the net environmental gain of their operations will become progressively important. Not only could it represent vast energy savings, achieving obvious benefits for the environment and operators’ profit margins, it will also help to ensure greater compliance when WtE production protocol inevitably becomes more stringent.

We have to remember that, really, the alternative fuel market is in its infancy at present. As it grows and matures, the regulations that govern it will undoubtedly evolve too. So, as with any business environment, the WtE sector will require increasingly sophisticated methodologies if operators are to thrive commercially, while remaining compliant.

Only recently I was listening to a conversation regarding the Industrial Emissions Directive, and the more rigorous permitting system that is said to govern the construction of new plants with production capacity of at least 75 tonnes per day. Noise minimisation reportedly forms one of the Directive’s criteria, yet the number of decibels a plant operates at, will rarely have been a first thought for WtE firms in the past.

It just goes to show the complex considerations that reputable RDF and SRF manufacturers increasingly have to consider. Of course factors such as particle sizing, moisture content and calorific value can never be neglected. Yet to grow a commercially robust WtE organisation that can uphold the principles of true resource efficiency – while safeguarding the environment, employees, communities and profit margins – is no mean feat.

Chris Oldfield is managing director of shredding specialist UNTHA UK

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