OFT looks at GFP

I see that the Office for Fair Trading (OFT) is to launch a study of the market for energy from waste. I was a bit bemused by this when I first heard about it: is there an issue of unfair competition in energy from waste? Has BIFFA cornered the market in anaerobic digestion (AD) when we weren’t looking?  OFT is in fact going to lead a study supported by OFWAT mainly on the market and incentives for what one might call GFP (Gas From Poo) involving sewage sludge, but also looking at how wider energy from waste schemes  involving food and farm waste digested separately or in conjunction with sewage might best work.

A bit clearer? Not much, I’m afraid, but it is good that at least someone is doing something about the market for energy from waste, even if it is the OFT.  Because the issue, as I see it, is that so far pretty much no-one has looked into the application and potential of energy from waste (or EFW) for Britain’s future energy supply and security: it remains all but invisible as far as Government policy on energy is concerned: it has been, and still is, all about how waste might best be disposed of and recycled away from landfill, and where in the waste hierarchy what is still sometimes called ‘incineration’ features.

That too, is a bit odd, since the potential for serious and secure energy supplies from waste is clearly there – recent estimates are that, if all the food and wood waste that is currently sent to landfill were to be hauled out and digested (food) or used for combustion or co-firing (waste wood) it would contribute about 18% of the UK’s renewable energy target. That’s a massive contribution by anybody’s reckoning, and would, by the by, remove some 9 million tonnes of food waste and 6 million tonnes of (mostly contaminated) waste wood from holes in the ground.

Incidentally, neither of these resources can properly have the label ‘incineration’ attached to them anymore. The most carbon efficient thing to do with contaminated waste wood is to use it for energy, and digesting food and organic waste to produce bio-methane injectable into the gas grid is, depending on how you do it, very carbon efficient as well.

But big resource or not, EFW barely registers its presence in recent strategy documents. The 2007 Energy White Paper, for example, contains hardly a word about it, except for a stray paragraph discussing Renewable Obligation Certificate (ROCs) provision for anaerobic digestion. The sole indication that EFW might be useful in the energy mix is contained in the line ‘generating energy from that part of waste which cannot be prevented, reused or recycled has both energy and waste policy benefits….’. Steady on policy-makers; don’t overegg the pudding…

So maybe it features as a potentially large future energy source in the Waste Review of the same year, one might think.  Well, not really; about half a page mainly on the waste benefits of EFW, and a line we may think we’ve heard before: ‘recovering energy from waste which cannot sensibly be reused or recycled is an essential component of a well-balanced energy economy’.  I suppose at least you can say there’s been consultation on phrasemongering between DECC and DEFRA, if on nothing else.

A little bit more, granted in the Renewables White Paper of 2009, but where is the impact in the famous 2020 and after pie-graphs?  Still not to be seen, I’m sorry to say.

I think this is all because EFW remains in a waste silo: it is all about how you dispose of waste, and not about what waste as a resource might become; and the connection between a resource and its potential so well-examined in all other energy sectors, hasn’t by and large been done. There’s an arresting recent example of this:  in the autumn the Government published its justification assessment for the removal of PFI funding from seven major local authority waste projects: try as you might you can find no examination of anything other than whether the UK can meet its EU landfill reduction targets without these schemes, and therefore whether it is ‘efficient’ or not to fund them.  Whether some or all of the schemes might have made a dent in the EU renewable targets is not explored.

I’m being a bit unfair; there are two documents that I’ve seen recently that do take the case seriously. One is the 2050 energy pathways  analysis that does look at the contribution waste might make to some, at least of the energy scenarios up to 2050; rather remote and tentative, but a serious examination. The second is not a Government document at all. It’s the 2010 Institute of Civil Engineers ‘State of the Nation’ report on Waste and Resource Management which you can read here.  Here’s what they say, among other things:

The UK’s waste and resource management infrastructure will need to go through several stages of evolution over the next forty years. This will reflect a switch in emphasis from diverting material from landfill towards energy and material security, all within the context of stringent CO2 reduction targets’.

Spot on ICE, and slightly difficult for me, when I spoke at the launch of the report last week. All I could say really was how right the report was, and to try and steal some of its best lines before the report’s authors took to the stage.  I did manage to make the point about the apparent  silos on EFW between DEFRA and DECC, and how, certainly if municipal waste and commercial/industrial waste are increasingly to be treated in essentially the same way, then EFW could take on far more of a sustainable energy role than it hitherto has.

I hope the ICE report will be on Ministers desks, and that they might be minded to write what it says into early policy documents, and even start to put some slices of the pie graph in the direction of EfW.  And then David Archer’s battle won’t have been in vain. (Sorry if you don’t listen to the Archers;  turn to p. 94 for an alternative ending.)