January 13, 2013 4:57 pm

Pioneering waste plant a step closer

A pioneering waste-fuelled power plant will come a step closer to fruition on Monday with the announcement of the award of a site preparation contract to Tolent Construction, a company headquartered in the northeast of England.

The US-based Air Products is developing the $500m, 50MW plant at Billingham, Teesside. Scheduled to begin operating in 2014, it will divert up to 350,000 metric tonnes of non-recyclable waste annually from landfill and generate energy to power 50,000 homes.

The waste-to-energy plant will be the first in the UK to use a power generation technique known as advanced gasification, as well as being the biggest such facility in the world.

The move to viewing waste as a resource – rather than a problem to be dumped in dwindling landfill space – has been given a commercial boost in the UK by the government’s confirmation of a subsidy regime for April 2013 to 2017.

The subsidies are to help meet a requirement that the UK source at least 15 per cent of its total energy from renewables by 2020. Certainty about subsidies should kick-start big energy from waste (EfW) projects, says Paul Thompson, head of policy at the Renewable Energy Association.

“Deployment is very largely dependent on the financial incentives because it’s more costly to generate electricity this way than through fossil fuels,” he says. “We would expect to see people move ahead with schemes now. They know this period is about as good as it’s going to get.”

Teesside is a focus. Air Products recently launched plans for a second EfW plant at Billingham. The government-backed Green Investment Bank’s £8m first investment is into a £16m anaerobic digestion plant to be developed in Teesside by Earthly Energy. The project’s private sector funder is Greensphere Capital, chaired by Jon Moulton, the venture capitalist.

At Wilton, Teesside, Sembcorp and Sita have proposed a big EfW incineration plant. And in County Durham, Emerald Biogas is building an £8m facility processing farm and food waste.

EfW technologies include combustion, in which residual waste is burnt and the energy recovered as electricity or heat. There are also gasification and pyrolysis, where the fuel is heated with little or no oxygen to produce syngas, which can be used to generate energy or as an industrial feedstock.

Another option is anaerobic digestion, which uses micro-organisms to convert organic waste into a methane-rich biogas. This can be combusted to generate electricity and heat or converted into biomethane.

There is scope for more energy to be recovered from UK waste. But success is not guaranteed, as problems faced by two big northern autoclaving projects showed.

Autoclaving uses a pressurised rotating vessel into which steam is introduced, separating the waste and breaking down the organic fraction into a fibre, for use in manufacturing or as a renewable fuel.

On Tyneside, Graphite Resources raised £50m in 2008 to develop the world’s largest steam autoclave recycling plant. Backers included Lehman Brothers. In mid-2011 the parent company went into administration and its debt was restructured. Graphite Resources, whose Gateshead plant is mothballed, is now developing anaerobic digestion technology to use the fibre.

And in Yorkshire an explosion at Sterecycle’s Rotherham plant, the UK’s first commercial scale autoclave plant, killed one man and injured another in January 2011. The company, which had raised £45m and talked of flotation in London or Canada, resumed operation but fell into administration in October 2012.

Autoclaving, however, may restart in Yorkshire. Shanks UK, the waste management company, has tested a plant near Wakefield. Ian Goodfellow, managing director, said only delays to arranging funding, which he hopes could be in place by April, have held back the opening.

Mr Goodfellow said the autoclave – technology proven on a small scale in hospitals – was safe. “It has had full-scale testing for 10,000 hours without problems and a number of independent checks done on it.”

Shanks UK’s latest project, a joint venture with Scottish and Southern Energy, is under construction in South Yorkshire. Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster councils, who have formed a joint BDR Waste Partnership, awarded a 25-year contract worth about £700m a year to sort waste, recycle most, and burn and bury the rest.

The facility at Manvers in Rotherham should open in 2015, with more than 200,000 tonnes of waste annually subject to mechanical biological treatment and then AD. The residue from MBT will be burnt at Ferrybridge, a coal-fired power station nearby.

North Yorkshire and York councils have agreed to build a vast facility near Knaresborough in a £900m, 25-year deal with a consortium of Amey of the UK and Cespa of Spain, combining MT and AD. It would generate 1.1MW of electrical power from biogas while the rest would go to a 24MW EfW plant. Some residents oppose the plan fiercely.

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