Energy recovery: A technology portfolio in need of a re-brand or in need of a government boost?

Written by: Dr Adam Read | Published:
Dr Adam Read, practice director for resource efficiency & waste management @ Ricardo Energy & Environment

Each month, Dr Adam Read, practice director for resource efficiency & waste management @ Ricardo Energy & Environment discusses the big issues from his point of view, and this month considers the lack of real progress being made on energy recovery and the need for great policy leadership from the UK government

Some of you might be thinking ‘here we go again another commentary on the state of the UK EfW market and the lack of progress’ but don’t switch of just yet.... the situation is real, yet the possibilities are almost endless, so why shouldn’t we be talking about it and more importantly why aren’t we acting upon it?

Transitioning.... it’s good news, I think

Many commentators might claim that that the EfW sector in the UK is in transition. We have stark and competing viewpoints on the amounts of available residual waste available and needing to be treated – from Eunomia quarterly updates to those from my own team and the likes of CIWM, Veolia and Suez - the only thing we can be certain of is there remains waste to be treated and we don’t know how much of it will be exported – so this shouldn’t be a barrier to new infrastructure development, at least not in the next four or five years.

On the other side of the equation we have seen a large number of high profile project failures involving the likes of Interserve, Energos and Air Products. These projects are failing/faltering due to a number of issues from feedstock suitability and change over time, through to failures to adopt international technologies to the UK situation, as well as simple economics and the changing incentive regime which may have helped to undermine some sensible looking projects.

Clearly, the current government consultation on renewable energy incentives and the possible shift away from promoting a wide range of renewable energy and renewable heat programmes (including AD, advanced conversion and traditional EfW with heat extraction) is not helping to create a market where new solutions come to the fire, and with austerity still very real local authorities are less likely than ever to want to bank on a higher risk technology solution even if the cost per tonne is appealing.

Layered on top of these contrasting debates is the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and its potential impact on waste management targets in the UK and the international market for commodities and RDF. Should we not embrace this opportunity and encourage UK plc to deal with its own waste streams closer to home?

Looking at the upsides

If there is a potential (and significant) decline in RDF going abroad in two or three years’ time then there will be obvious new opportunities for UK infrastructure investment. Some of this new infrastructure must be aligned to the next phase of long-term local authority treatment and disposal contracts (after all, some of the early PFIs are now in review mode and the authorities are considering the options for those assets at the end of the 25-year contract periods).

Some local authorities will develop ever more holistic views of their resources taking their wastes as a potential feedstock for new infrastructure that heats the leisure centre, schools and hospitals, and produces a fuel for the many vehicles run through the local council, hospital trust and contractor teams (from refuse collection to meals on wheels). Enlightened local authorities are already running the numbers associated with their waste management costs and their energy demands, and are considering ways to reduce their energy bills and to de-risks their reliance on international providers .... it makes so much sense, but the government is far from advocating this in any recent policy announcements!

We will also see a widening mix of technologies come to the fore to suit the changing market demands and the feedstocks available.... MBT and its RDF product may not be so dominant in five to 10 years as authorities and their partners look to produce quality outputs/products that match market demands – clean fuels, consistent and quality heat, variable fuel streams (from gas to diesel substitutes, etc.). Traditional mass burn may not offer the advantages of higher efficiencies and lower emissions than some advanced conversion technologies can, but they are bankable, reliable and robust and if we aren’t having to meet all EU targets and directives in the near future then energy conversion efficiency may not be biggest concern for investors and developers.

Obviously, others will plump for more novel and developmental technologies, with increasing attention looking at gasification and pyrolysis solution providers from markets far and wide, while others including the Department for Transport and the major supermarket chains will be supporting biofuels that can help run their fleets etc.

Certainly from my perspective we are seeing far more interest in plastic to diesel plants, potentially operating at a much more local scale than the traditional mass burn energy recovery plants, with their ability to produce a higher grade product. Although many plants are in development, the jury is still out on whether they will be the next big thing in the energy from waste market, and that alone is a good reason to check out the special EfW supplement available with the December issue of Recycling & Waste World.

Getting together and sharing

The special EfW supplement (published with the December issue of Recycling & Waste World) is an introduction to many of the big issues I have discussed thus far, providing some more case studies, a little bit more detail and a range of thought provoking insights into the changing nature of the UK EfW market. The supplement is part of the promotions campaign linked to the EfW conference which will be hosted in London in February 2017, and both the supplement and the event are worthy of closer consideration – after all the supplement is free, so what’s there to lose?

In the supplement we have technology providers demonstrating their new (and in some cases not so new) solutions and discussing the trends they are seeing in their plants’ performance and delivery while issues as diverse as the different incentive schemes and their relative success around Europe, the future of RDF markets and the commercialisation of heat networks are all explained. I have enjoyed contributing my own insights, and in the next week or so you will be able to read about my take on all things EfW.

But the debate won’t stop with the supplement, not at all. I would advise you all to seriously consider joining me in London on 21 and 22 February 2017 ( to listen to the movers and shakers in this space and to get answers to your own questions first hand. And if we are lucky, representatives from all the key government agencies (BEIS, Defra, Treasury etc.) might turn up, listen to the sector and its obvious need for greater consistency in policy, greater vision and harmony in the direction of travel, and support the sector as it deals with the uncertainties of global markets, Brexit and changing local demands. I can but dream ...

The UK market is changing, but it certainly isn’t shrinking, and when the overseas opportunities are also considered I can only see a bright future for energy recovery solutions for the next 30 years or more...... so come along and join the debate......

In the meantime may I take this opportunity (my last blog for RWW in 2016) to wish you a peaceful, joyous and enriching Christmas and New Year, and I look forward to blogging again in 2017!

As with all my ‘comments’ they are mine and mine alone. If you would like to get in touch or share your opinions then email me on For more of my blogs please refer to

Adam is global practice director for Ricardo Energy & Environment’s resource efficiency and waste management practice, and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management and the Royal Geographical Society. He has more than 20 years of waste sector strategy, service design, procurement and communications experience, both in the UK and overseas, and is a regular industry commentator, author and conference speaker, both in the UK and around the world.

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