A load of rubbish: the rise of Energy from Waste projects

Ten years ago there were only a handful of energy-from-waste (EfW) facilities in the UK, with most waste ending up in landfill sites.

Horsley

According to Green Investment Bank, since 2000 the amount of waste sent to landfill each year has dropped by 70 per cent to 20.9 million tonnes. There is now enough EfW capacity to process 5.2 million tonnes of waste with around 12 million tonnes capacity by 2020.

These changes have been driven by the Landfill Directive 1999. This introduced targets on the amount of biodegradable municipal waste EU member states could landfill. The UK had been able to rely on cheap landfill due to its geology so it needed a £10bn-plus infrastructure programme to meet its targets.

EfW facilities use solid waste as fuel, either by traditional mass burn incineration or advanced thermal treatment such as gasification. The benefits are twofold: first they divert waste from landfill, reducing the escape of carbon dioxide and methane from landfill sites; second, they displace the use of fossil fuels as a source of energy.

There are three issues to highlight surrounding EfW projects. 

  • Planning: This can be a difficult phase as local residents often raise concerns related to pollution, road traffic congestion and the impact on front-end recycling. Many projects have fallen at this hurdle and people in the industry joke that ‘nimbyism’ (Not In My Back Yard) has become ‘banana-ism’ (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything).
  • Green subsidies: These are available to support the funding of renewable energy plants and some EfW facilities fall within this category. Becoming eligible for a subsidy can dramatically improve the economics of a project. There are often issues around eligibility and changes to these subsidy schemes.
  • Waste supply: Most waste put into EfW facilities comes from local authorities, but recycling pressures mean they often cannot guarantee they will fill the plant to capacity. Waste supply from the private sector is fragmented and it is difficult to bank long term counterparty risk with corporate waste suppliers.

A typical projects lawyer in the waste sector must have a broad legal knowledge base which includes EU procurement law, waste regulation, planning law, commercial contracts, construction law, corporate law, IP and finance law. 

Projects can take years to close, but the outcome can be rewarding because the project leads to infrastructure that minimises the environmental impact of our society and reduces our carbon footprint.

Jack Horsley is a trainee solicitor at Ashurst

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