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.