Australia’s future in UK’s past

With the United Kingdom steadily investing in waste to energy, Waste Management Review uncovers what lessons Australia could learn from UK projects.

Australia faces unique challenges when it comes to waste management. Geographically as a country, there is low population density and the entirety of its population could fit into California, almost twice over.

According to the Victorian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA Victoria), the landfill levy for industrial waste disposal jumped from $44 to $58.50 a tonne from 2011 to 2014-15 – a 33 per cent increase. At the same time, energy prices have also been rising, according to the Australian Energy Market Operator.

One possible solution is turning waste into a source of energy to tackle both issues at the same time.

The Australian Waste to Energy Forum was a chance for the movers and shakers of both the energy and waste industries to come together and listen to industry experts about the potential to turn waste into resources.

There are four main forms of waste to energy: landfill gas harvested from decomposing matter, anaerobic digestion of organic waste in oxygen-low environments, extracting refuse-derived fuels from non-biodegradable plastics and incinerating waste in thermal treatment.

Thermal treatment may be an attractive solution, as it can offer another waste to energy solution out of many others to tackle residual waste, but it has not been implemented in Australia at scale.

The UK has seen a significant increase in its use of thermal treatment plants. With rising landfill levies that reach up to $153 per tonne and a push from the UK Government to move away from landfill, thermal treatment has become a popular alternative.

THE UK SITUATION

Dr Stuart Wagland, Senior Lecturer in Energy and Environmental chemistry at Cranfield University, is an expert in the study of resource recovery and the energy potential of UK waste streams.

His research on the UK’s waste management helped encourage the UK Government to invest in a demonstrator-scale advanced thermal treatment facility. He has also discussed the possibilities of potentially using this technology on a smaller scale in the UK.

There are two major types of thermal treatment facilities in the UK. The first are large scale combustion facilities that can handle a significant amount of waste diverted from landfill.

Stuart says larger facilities face unique challenges as they are dependent on bigger quantities of waste, leading to increased transport costs.

He also says land owners and local residents don’t want to live near existing and new facilities.

The other types of facilities are smaller advanced thermal treatment plants. Stuart says they have smaller energy outputs but have the benefit of being lower profile, adding that they can fit into existing infrastructure better than the larger scale facilities.

Stuart says one of the reasons that the UK has had such a major push towards waste to energy is its political climate, which has seen landfill diversion become a driver towards sustainable waste management.

High landfill levies and government incentives to find renewable sources of energy has seen the waste to energy industry turn into a growth market.

Stuart says these incentives have created an environment that makes certain waste to energy technologies appealing.

“Because all energy from anaerobic digestion is renewable, companies are able to receive incentives from the government.”

He says this incentive has helped boost the attractiveness of anaerobic digestion in the UK, but there is now significant competition in the market, with gate fees becoming more competitive.

“In the UK, we have around 300 anaerobic digestion sites now all competing for feedstock. Without incentives, there could be mass closures,” he says.

The UK Government has also been allotting funding towards gasifiers and other treatment plants.

“One major driver that has helped the UK in this space is the fact the UK Government has been proactive in supporting these projects.

“One gasifier in the UK, situated on the Isle of Wight, but no longer operational, received funding through a new waste technology demonstrator program,” Stuart says.

Momentum for waste to energy in Australia is building.

He says it is not as simple as merely building a bigger gasifier when scaling up production for advanced thermal treatment. Stuart adds that this approach has not proved successful in the UK and lead to high-profile setbacks.

“We’ve seen people in the UK that have tried to build a large gasifier, which failed.

“These kinds of facilities don’t work in the UK, so it’s highly unlikely they will work in an Australian context.”

Stuart says Australia’s needs differ greatly from the UK’s, but there are still valuable lessons to be learnt about the use of waste to energy in an Australian context.

“The population of Australia is a lot lower and more spread out than that of the UK,” Stuart says.

“Australia has proximity challenges that would impact a large-scale incinerator. One might work in places like Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane, but for smaller, regional areas, they just wouldn’t be worth it,” he says.

“In regional centres like Ballarat, with populations of around 100,000, advanced thermal treatment facilities could work well. They could benefit with the introduction of these smaller scale facilities.”

Stuart believes that there is no one-size-fits-all technology that can be rolled out. There are too many variables and niches that the waste and energy industries need to fill. This means that advanced thermal treatment and large-scale facilities aren’t necessarily rivals, instead they work best in tandem.

There are even possibilities that a network of thermal treatment plants could help to fuel a larger city like Sydney or Melbourne.

“One of the upsides of the technology is that you can have more than one facility servicing an area. With small-scale facilities, you can have more of them and closer to residential areas, but they do cost more to set up. In the end, you offset the costs of the start up with the reduced transport fees,” Stuart says.

“For example, you could have a centralised incinerator that handles most of the waste from Sydney, with smaller suburbs being serviced by the smaller facilities.”

AUSTRALIAN FUTURES

Stuart believes one of the best things Australia can do is to take the leap of faith into thermal treatment.

“You need an incinerator first, which is a globally proven technology, just to prove that it’s a viable commercial prospect. It’s a proven technology elsewhere in the world and when you get the right environment and waste stream, it’s no problem,” he says.

“Financing is the difficult part. It can be hard to find someone willing to take the plunge and financing gasifiers is even more difficult. At this point, it is best to take the easier route and start small so the industry can find its feet.”

Stuart says thermal treatment is growing at a rapid pace and the future can be hard to predict.

He says this exponential technological growth could lead to amazing scientific discoveries that could revolutionise both the waste and energy industries.

“If you asked me where I thought the technology would be five years ago, I would have gotten it wrong. The whole system is changing and evolving so quickly.

“We have artificial intelligence creeping into our waste management, which could lead to a faster and more effective mechanical sorting plant system. We might find that in five years we’re producing hydrogen from waste, it’s difficult to say what the future holds.”