The role of WtE in the UK’s energy generation mix


In his latest editorial, AcuComm’s Chief Data Analyst, Andy Crofts, is exploring the potential future of the UK’s power generation facilities.


There’s not been much going on in the UK news lately, so everyone will have seen the latest setback in the government’s quest to boost the country’s nuclear power capacity. In January, Hitachi pulled out of negotiations to build a new facility in Wales. This is the latest of several such failed agreements and leaves the UK with a potentially huge shortfall in power generation in years to come. Older facilities, both nuclear and fossil fuel-fired, have been closed or scaled down, and they need to be replaced. But when, and with what? To what extent might waste-to-energy fill the gap?

Nuclear generation accounted for 15% of generation in 2016. It has grown a little in importance from around 10% prior to 2011. The UK remains predominantly reliant on fossil fuels for domestic energy generation. These amounted to 69% of the total in 2016. This percentage has fallen steadily, however, from 91% in 1990. Within this, the use of coal has diminished, with oil and natural gas becoming the dominant fuels.

Use of alternative fuels was below 1% of the total prior to 1994 but has risen steadily since, to 16% of generation in 2016. This is composed principally of biomass/biogas generation which accounted for a combined 9% in 2016. Wind power accounted for 2.5% in 2016. The remainder comprised small amounts of solar, hydro, biofuel and waste.

UK generation from waste accounted for 1.8% of domestic generation in 2016. While small, this figure has risen in recent years, from 0.5% in 2008 and only 0.1% in 1990. What proportion of generation can waste reasonably expect to generate? In absolute terms, the UK was the third-largest generator of energy from waste in Europe in 2016 (only Germany and France were higher), but in terms of the percentage of energy generated from waste it remains near the bottom with 1.8%. Germany, in contrast, generated just under 7% from waste. The highest proportion in 2016 was Austria, with just over 8%. Italy, Denmark and Belgium all generated more than 5% from waste.

Since 2013, AcuComm has tracked 62 new investments involving WtE incineration of municipal waste, worth around US$12.5 billion. Of these, 22 are now operational, 11 are under construction and the remainder are in various planning stages. Just one recent example is the new WtE facility in Leeds which opened in 2016. This allows the city to reduce its previous reliance on landfill and generates 11 MW of power for the national grid.

Such projects, however, are only going to be able to supply relatively small additional amounts of power, however welcome. The scope for widespread extra power generation using waste is open to question. The available statistics suggest that the UK is coming to the end of a generational process of transferring from reliance on landfill to a mixture of recycling and WtE incineration. In 1995, 83% of the UK’s municipal waste was sent to landfill, while only 9% was incinerated. By 2016 (the latest available year for data), landfill had fallen to 19% while incineration had risen to 34%. This latter figure is comparable to that in France (35%) or Germany (31%).

So, it seems there is not a great deal more landfill waste that can be put to work. The best opportunities, therefore, may well come from the replacement of older WtE facilities with newer plants that are more efficient in the way they handle waste and generate power. The Edmonton EcoPark facility in north London is an example. The current plant is nearly 50 years old, and plans are under way to replace it, increasing its power output from 55 MW to 78 MW. This is currently due to open in 2024, although regulatory and environmental objections mean this is already much-delayed.

The role of other, newer technologies is currently uncertain. There have been some conversions of plants to run on biomass, although the sustainability of this is in question. There has also been interest in use of gasification of waste in the UK. AcuComm has tracked 19 of these since 2013. What is striking is that none are yet operational. Some projects never gain the necessary funding and those that do have run into operational difficulties. An example is the Hull Energy Works plant. This was first approved in 2012, and due to open at the end of 2018. This did not happen, and, while work is well-advanced, the plant is now anticipated to begin work in 2019.

So, while waste to energy does and will continue to play a useful role in adding to the UK’s energy generation mix, its overall contribution will be limited. Either a new way forward needs to be found with nuclear energy, or other sources will be needed, such as greater use of wind, solar or wave power. Or, existing power stations will be pressed into ever-longer service. From my office window, the Fiddlers Ferry coal-fired power station looms large on the horizon. It can generate 1,989 MW, equal to 180 of the WtE plants recently built in Leeds. This was due to begin winding down in 2016, with complete shutdown by 2025. With nuclear off the table, it, and others like it, looks like being in operation a good while longer.

#Editors’Pick – WtE & Biomass Facilities

China: Construction of an RDF-fuelled WtE plant

Earlier this month, Valmet announced that it has signed a contract with Ürümqi Jinghuan Environmental & Energy for a two boiler RDF-fuelled WtE plant in China. The plant will have an annual throughput of 1 million tonnes of RDF (produced from 100% MSW). Heat and power production is expected to start by the end of 2019.

Find out more about this project.

Germany: Construction of a biomass cogeneration plant

Urbas Energietechnik is reported to have been commissioned by Holzindustrie Schweighofer to be the contractors of construction for a new €24 million biomass cogeneration in Germany. The plant will have a capacity of 21.3 MWth and 5.5 MWe – relying solely on natural bark and forest biomass for fuel at the plant. Commissioning of the plant is expected to take place in spring 2020.

Find out more about this project.

Currently Trending: RDF, Biomass & Heat Recovery

As part of our regular complimentary market updates, AcuComm has introduced a brand new ‘Currently Trending’ feature. This will cherry-pick the top global Waste, Bioenergy & Recycling focuses for the week, giving businesses who operate in or sell into the industry essential insights into where investments are being made.

Our latest waste trends include:

  • RDF Plants – including recent projects in China and the United Arab Emirates.
  • Biomass in Germany – including three new projects updated in 2019 in Nuremberg-Sandreuth, Dinslaken and Kodersdorf.
  • Heat Recovery in Asia – including new updates on Taiwan’s largest ORC plant.

Click on the above trends to access a real-time project search in the AcuComm database.

What use are waste statistics?

The online business blogger Zerohedge recently published a post entitled ‘The Danes Are Europe’s Biggest Wasters’. This presented Eurostat data from 2016 showing that Danish per person waste generation was 777 tonnes, considerably ahead of Germany (623 tonnes per person) or Sweden (a mere 443 tonnes).

What’s going on here? Is Denmark really Europe’s biggest waster? An argument can perhaps be made that runs along these lines: Denmark has an extremely sophisticated waste management system and a high level of recycling. People are therefore relaxed about generating waste, as they know it will be treated properly rather than being dumped. Therefore, a high level of generation doesn’t matter, is to be expected and is even a good sign!

I’m not sure how plausible I find that argument. In any case, it falls down when looking at generation across Europe. Neither Sweden nor Germany are backward when it comes to waste treatment, as, as seen above, they have considerably lower generation levels. Do these people not realise how much more they could be wasting?!

The simpler answer to the Danish question is of course that the Eurostat data is not yet at a point where it can be considered comparable. Sadly, this is true when comparing between countries and also over time for a single country. I looked at some regional Eurostat data over time:


The first thing to note is that Danish waste generation has been considerably higher than in Finland or Sweden for the past two decades. It grew sharply until 2008, since when it has levelled off. The same pattern, though far less pronounced, can be seen in Finland and Sweden.

You will have already spotted the data for Norway, which is all over the place. Here’s a clue I think. Norway reported a per person level of waste generation similar to Denmark’s until the year 2001, when it dropped sharply to 361 tonnes from 613 tonnes a year earlier. That can only be explained by a change in reporting methodology; a change which Denmark it would seem has never made. From 2001 to 2015, Norway is broadly in line with its nearest neighbours.

Curiously, the Norwegian figure for 2016 is back again at ‘Danish’ levels. Again, such a rise compared with the previous year cannot plausibly represent reality, but rather a change in methodology or reporting completeness. It will be interesting to see if this renewed higher figure is present when the 2017 data is published.

So I doubt that Denmark is really such a big waster; it’s far more likely that they fill in the figures differently. As do, on occasion, Norway. Plenty of other anomalies can be spotted across the Eurostat data, and this has great implications for anyone trying to use it for their strategic planning.

For much of Europe, reported waste treatment figures are identical to reported generation figures. Leaving aside whether that is in itself wholly plausible, we can delve a little deeper into the waste treatment data. This shows that Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway share very similar characteristics for waste treatment. Landfill is barely used, while 50-56% of waste is incinerated. Almost all the remainder is recycled in some way. So in this respect, none of these countries is doing anything radically different from its neighbours.

Denmark and Norway – the two outlier countries in 2016 – are however notable for relatively large per person treatment figures for WtE incineration and in particular recycling. The Danish figure for recycling in 2016 was 371 tonnes per person, 72% higher than the 216 tonnes reported by Sweden!

To return to Norway, the sharp drop in 2001 was due to a fall in the level of landfill, from 336 tonnes per person in 2000, to 92 tonnes in 2001. Assuming there was, in fact, no ‘real world’ sharp fall in generation, what happened to this waste which was formerly landfilled? The Eurostat data shows a modest rise for WtE incineration and a fall for recycling. Either a sizeable proportion of Norway’s waste fell out of the figures in 2001, or there was a serious overcount prior to 2001. Tentatively, I’d say the latter, given the comparison with Sweden and Finland. Reported treatment figures are inconsistent, and these get reported as generation, since one is assumed to equal the other.

In contrast, and finally, I promise, the high Norwegian figure in 2016 was due to an 83% rise in WtE incineration and a 60% rise in recycling, all in one year. Once again, it doesn’t seem terribly likely from a waste generation (or indeed treatment) point of view.

Business planners should be aware of these issues. I’ve singled out Eurostat here, but the rest of the world is worse; the attempted comprehensiveness of European statistics simply makes it easier to spot the problems. The data is far from worthless, but great care needs to be taken when comparing between countries and across time. At AcuComm we make little direct use of these statistics, preferring to rely on our own data which shows actual levels of investment across the waste sector, and in a more timely manner too.

#Editor’sPick – WtE & MBT Facilities

China – WtE Facility

Development of the world’s largest waste incineration facility

Last month, Hitachi Zosen completed the world’s largest-scale waste incineration plant and handed it over to Hunan Junxin Environmental Protection Group.

The facility incorporates five mechanical grate, stoker-type furnaces, that together, have a daily throughput of 5,100 tonnes. Over 500,000 MWh of electricity will be generated each year.

Find out more from this project.

Singapore – MBT Facility

Construction of a mechanical biological treatment facility

China Jinjiang Environment has obtained shareholders’ approval for an EPC agreement to construct a pilot, first-of-its-kind mechanical biological treatment project in Tuas.

The company informed AcuComm that preparatory site work started at the end of 2018 and that the plant could be operational by mid-2020.

The facility will help to maximise resource recovery and prolong the lifespan of Singapore’s only landfill.

See the full details.

Fortum announces new biomass project

Fortum welcomed in 2019 with the announcement that it is launching a ‘significant development project’ that aims to manufacture high-value products from agro-residues and woody biomass to replace the use of fossil and other environmentally taxing raw materials.

The company has received support from Business Finland for a €14.4 million, two-year project in which Fortum and collaborating technology and refining partners will conduct research into creating an industrial ecosystem in which biomass is refined in ‘bio-villages’. Demand for bio-based raw materials is growing rapidly in, for example, the textile industry. In addition to utilising woody biomass, the downstream processing opportunities for agro-biomass unsuitable for human consumption, like straw, are also being explored. The project will be part of Business Finland’s ‘Bio and Circular Finland Program’ which aims to place Finland at the forefront of the circular economy.

Fortum already has extensive experience in utilising biomass for combined heat and power production but is now planning to leverage technologies to use biomass more efficiently: separating the main components of biomass (cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin), with any remaining material combusted for energy. After fractionation, cellulose can be used to produce textiles, hemicellulose can be used as a raw material in foods and cosmetics, and lignin can be used in the production of adhesives.

The new project ties in with Fortum’s Bio2X programme which champions the development of new technologies for utilising biomass. Existing Bio2X projects include:

A biorefinery in Assam, India, being developed in collaboration with a joint venture between Numaligarh Refinery Limited (NRL) and Chempolis. Using formico-technology developed by Chempolis, the biorefinery will use bamboo as the key raw material in the production of bioethanol for blending into petrol. The biorefinery will also produce biochemicals and a biocoal which will be used to produce heat and power on-site.

Fortum Otso, a bio-oil made from forest residues, wood chips or sawdust. It is a replacement for heavy oil and reduces CO2 emissions by close to 90% compared to fossil fuels. Fortum opened its bio-oil production plant in Joenssu in late 2013.

Fortum European projects January 2019

AcuComm’s WasteView Projects database has details of 26 projects involving Fortum – the majority of these are located in Europe.

Written by Ian Taylor, Senior Editor & Research Consultant

#Editor’sPick – WtE & Recycling Facilities

China – WtE Facility

Construction of a 1,050 tpd WtE facility

China Everbright International has won the build-operate-transfer contract for the Henan Pingyu Waste-to-Energy (WtE) Project.

Phase I of the plant will have the capacity to process 700 tonnes of household waste each day and will cost around RMB 426 million.

See the latest from this project.

Bulgaria – Recycling Plant

Construction of a plastics recycling plant

Integra Plastics is expecting to open its new €40 million plastics recycling plant in Elin Pelin next month.

It will recycle up to 30,000 tonnes of household waste each year and produce low-density polyethylene, high-density polyethylene and polypropylene granules.

Find out more about this project.

AcuComm’s Daily Full Access Project – Argentina Biogas Plant

Construction of a 2.4 MW biogas plant

BTS Biogas is in the process of constructing a new biogas plant in Pergamino and has reported that electro-mechanical installation is expected to begin in February.

The facility will process 50,000 tonnes of agricultural by-products and plant/animal biomass to produce biogas, which will later be used to generate electricity. Fertiliser will also be produced as a by-product for local farms.

It is scheduled to be operational by September/October 2019.

See the full details from this project.

AcuComm’s Daily Full Access Project – UK AD Plant

Construction of an AD plant at a sewage works

AcuComm has been advised by Yorkshire Water that its new sludge treatment and anaerobic digestion (AD) facility at the Knostrop Sewage Treatment Works is due to be handed over in May 2019.

Commissioning for the facility, which has cost approximately £72m, started in September 2018 after engineering and development was completed earlier in the year.

When operational, it will process 131 tonnes of dry sludge each day to produce methane, which will later be turned into electricity for use at the plant.

See the full details from this project.

AcuComm’s Daily Full Access Project – Singapore MBT Facility

Construction of a mechanical biological treatment facility

China Jinjiang Environment is to develop a pilot, first-of-its-kind mechanical biological treatment (MBT) facility in Tuas.

The project was initiated by the National Environment Agency to maximise recycling and resource recovery, ultimately prolonging the lifespan of the country’s only landfill.

Preparatory site work started in late 2018, with the plant expected to be operational around mid-2020.

Access this project in full.