Big ideas, small changes: Ricardo Energy & Environment

Big ideas, small changes: Ricardo Energy & Environment

Waste to energy projects can be extremely complex and challenging to deliver. close bound and specific milestones will prove beneficial, writes David Woolford, Principal Consultant at Ricardo Energy & Environment.

Ongoing global recognition of the impact from waste on the environment requires those with responsibility to continually assess their strategy and approach to the delivery of treatment infrastructure. 

This should be fully cognisant of circular economy principles. Where appropriate, treatment technology should complement these principles along with the generated feedstock, potential offtake arrangements, local conditions and commensurate legislation and regulation.

The journey to deliver waste treatment infrastructure can be long and hazardous, but also exciting and rewarding. By setting out the conditions for monitoring and measuring progress, success can be celebrated.

There are many treatment technologies available to provide the necessary arrangements to complement the suite of infrastructure required to deal with the entirety of the waste that is generated. One such technology is waste to energy (WtE), which will have those that support its delivery and those that vehemently oppose. 

As with all projects, risks and opportunities exist and the opinions of all stakeholders should be addressed in equal measures as early as possible, as their interest level and influence may need cultivating. Internal and external communication is required to ensure those with interest are also kept informed.


There are six main phases required to deliver an WtE plant. These include concept, feasibility implementation (design, engineering, procurement and construction), handover and closeout (commissioning and take over), operations (such as reliability testing) and termination.

During these main phases, there will be many stakeholders involved, all with different needs and requirements, and the coordination required will be akin to conducting an orchestra, as different voices fade in as befits the different stages of the project. This, combined with the fact that these projects exist in an almost constant world of change, makes the pathway to success somewhat daunting.

Within each phase, there are many different facets that will need drawing together to ensure the ‘big idea’ can be delivered. A cohesive and collaborative approach will reduce the chaos and confusion and ensure that each facet can progress in tandem with other project elements. A direct linear approach to delivery can be considered, and while this does give a sense of order and structure, it does also open a project to easy disrupters that can halt entire workfaces and cause unnecessary delay, even if they do not directly interface. 


Setting milestones that are specific to the project phase, achievable, measurable, relevant and time bound can help track progress. While mission statements provide a sense of overall travel, strategies can be formed that are very deliverable. 

In many senses, interpreting the strategy at the point of delivery can be challenging. However, timely and relevant milestones that can be embedded with each of the project phases can help bring the horizon closer, which brings smaller change if required, along with greater order and focus to what needs to be done to achieve success. Any type of success on WtE projects can sometimes be hard won by the team, and when they present themselves they should be rightly celebrated.

Reaching financial close on any project is extremely difficult. Moving beyond the complexities of having a contracted and known feedstock, contracted offtake arrangements and an effective technology that sits between both can present a fog of confusion that can make the identification of risk difficult. Carrying these risks beyond financial close and into the supply chain can make monitoring and managing the project more difficult to measure at a time when the supply chain requires a degree of certainty to take into detailed design and beyond.

Big ideas can present small changes to the entire sphere of regional waste production and careful strategic consideration should be given to each waste infrastructure project to ensure it fits both immediate and long-term needs that complement overall objectives.

WtE can sometimes be seen as a small idea that can present big change. The reality is that this small idea can be extremely complex and challenging to deliver and the use of close bound and specific milestones will prove beneficial.

Taking an idea from the concept phase and into the operations phase requires, among other things, measurable milestones that are placed correctly within the project schedule. Honest measurement and appreciation of each milestone should be undertaken to ensure progress and make certain that the overall strategic aims and business plan continue to be met. If, at any stage, this is not the case then any idea, however big or small, must be carefully reassessed to ensure that what was originally concepted remains deliverable. Placing milestones at the right project point can help not only provide an early warning, but also provide the sign itself, which gives the project a chance to act fast to review and rectify any plans or processes that may not be delivering.  Check your dependencies, communicate with those involved, review the original plan and look for the right solution to keep a project on the right track to success.