We have had the company of a clean energy consultant, Jenya Khvatsky, over the past couple of months. Jenya was asked to flesh out our sketch of available waste across the UK (see related blog post) using official data.
The report can be viewed Waste Utilisation in the UK. Its conclusions are that the UK disposes of around 59m tonnes of household, commercial and agricultural waste each year, after recycling or composting some 40m tonnes (total therefore being 99m tonnes). This compares with our earlier estimate of 110m tonnes.
It should be stressed that Jenya’s figure of 59m tonnes is the officially recorded amount of waste. Actual amounts produced are certainly higher than this simply because not all waste finds its way either into recycling or into landfill. The ‘true’ figure may be 30% or even 40% higher than this.
Anyway, the 59m tonnes not currently being recycled or composted has an enormous energy value. Jenya calculates this at 563k terajoules (using average energy conversion rates across a wide spectrum of proven technologies). This would be enough to generate up to 14% of our current electricity consumption or 100% of existing ethanol-for-petrol substitution targets. In terms of value, the energy latent in the waste would be worth up to £7.2 billion per annum.
We believe that it is important to highlight these numbers as they represent a significant energy resource that is controlled by the UK Government (mostly via local councils). At the present moment, this resource is viewed as a problem – and an expensive one at that. Perceptions can and probably will change as the technologies become widely available which can process this waste into either electricity or bio-fuels. All that is lacking for this to happen is sufficient capital allocation; many of the technologies we have looked at over the past year or so are already capable of turning waste into energy on a commercially competitive basis.
Our own project (Project Greenland), which aims to take green (or garden) waste and turn it into solid fuel for domestic use, is a good example. We hope to launch this project commercially within the coming year, taking green waste, drying it and briquetting it to create a solid fuel to compete with firewood, sawdust briquettes and coal. While we are very excited about the renewable credentials of this product (few things are more renewable than grass, especially in the UK), the most significant thing about it is the cost of production. Ex bagging and branding, the cost of producing green waste briquettes is around £25 per tonne. Compare this with the current price of unprocessed sawdust (c.a. £20 per tonne and rising fast) and you will see why.
Recent years have seen the prices of solid fuel rise more or less in tandem with those of gas and oil, and this trend is very likely to continue in the future (for the reason that all solid fuels have large energy input in their production profile and also because they are produced from non-renewable or long term renewable sources, so have scarcity pressure in their pricing). Our green waste briquettes are different – energy costs represent just 10% of the market price of the product, and they are made from super renewable feedstock.
This means that we can keep prices low and, potentially, for a long time into the future. Already, we plan to market the briquettes at a substantial discount to firewood (cheapest of the available solid fuels). This discount will grow as time goes by, making green waste briquettes one of the most obvious answers to fuel poverty, which we feel will be even more of an issue in ten years’ time than it is today.
This brings us back to Jenya’s paper. If the Government adopts a laissez faire approach to waste, permitting the gasification / bio-fuels industries to take increasing portions of this waste and turn it into the highest value added products (electricity, bio-fuel for vehicles), then an opportunity will be missed. Heating homes with electricity or petrol is very inefficient. Furthermore, increasing numbers of households are likely to find the cost excessive. This will lead to a requirement for government to subsidize poorer households’ winter heating in an ever increasing spiral. Such subsidies are inefficient and expensive (not to mention very difficult to administer).
We will therefore be making the argument to government over the coming years that waste is a strategic national resource and should be valued as such. If all of the available 60m tonnes is simply handed over to the market, it will be processed and sold at the highest possible price (most likely as bio-fuel). This would in many respects be a ‘good thing’, but would like many good things provide no benefit to the worst off. Setting aside a portion of this national resource in order to ensure low cost heating for the poorest households seems sensible to us. Four million English households are classified today as being ‘fuel poor’. All of them could be provided with very cheap heating, either individually through briquettes or communally through pellets, using green waste. If we assume that each household needs an allocation of two tonnes of solid fuel to provide sufficient winter heating, then the eight million tonnes could be sourced entirely from the existing ‘stock’ of green waste, which we estimate to be in the region of 12m tonnes across the country.