Many good reasons exist for promoting energy from waste (EFW) projects. To name but a few; EU Directives require substantial reductions in landfill to 2020, but not all wastes are readily recyclable; the island of Ireland requires a broader energy mix to meet security of supply concerns and provide predictable ‘dispatchable’ power to back up increased wind generation; and, businesses are facing spiralling energy costs and waste-derived fuels can reduce dependency on fossil fuels.
Looking at the issue in these terms, there is substantial justification for a proliferation in energy from waste projects across Northern Ireland and ROI. Demand exists for large-scale EFW, for example for municipal waste, but there are numerous opportunities for smaller, more specialised plants across a range of EFW technologies such as anaerobic digestion, gasification and pyrolysis. Unfortunately, numerous barriers to the uptake of energy from waste technology remain, but with careful planning and expert advice these are not insurmountable.
A robust planning application is an absolute necessity, but sadly many applications have been delayed or challenged in the courts due to defects in the process. In some cases fault lies with the decision-making authority, but omissions or errors in the application itself can be a major cause of delay. Planning applications are both a technical and legal exercise, and often the latter is not given the necessary scrutiny until a project comes before the courts.
A significant barrier for EFW is perception. Many EFW proposals have failed or been delayed through generating substantial objections during the planning and permitting process. The common public perception of EFW as an environmentally harmful process is not reflected in both the diversity of fuel sources and modern (and strictly regulated) processes falling under the “EFW” umbrella. Community and political engagement is vital in minimising concerns and improving understanding right from the outset. Developers have their part to play in careful site and technology selection, but governments must also provide clearer policy signals to promote EFW and assist in gaining public acceptance of such projects.
Securing funding in the present economic climate can be difficult. Many banks are perhaps wary of financing what may be relatively untested technologies, even where the major hurdles of obtaining planning and environmental consents have been surmounted. Venture capital funds are showing increasing interest in EFW projects, but generally all funders will be risk averse and this will be reflected in the contractual documentation. A key concern for funders is the integrity and viability of long-term waste supply contracts. Closely linking a project to a specific commercial waste source, e.g. waste wood from a sawmill, may be an attractive proposition, but in other cases a more flexible approach to fuel source may help insulate the project from volatility in price or availability of feedstocks.
Building a consortium of project partners with proven track records in bringing EFW projects to market can be key to obtaining funding. At the same time this should not be allowed to stifle innovation and governments should do more to encourage new processes and technologies through funding local research and development and facilitating demonstration-scale projects.
The potential for EFW in Northern Ireland and ROI is huge, but in some respects so are the challenges. There are matters that project developers should address from early on to promote the success of their projects, but clear signals must be given at a political and policy level to enable EFW projects – in all their diverse guises – to succeed.
Andrew Ryan is a Partner and Head of Tughans’ Environment, Planning and Energy Department. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org