Refuse Derived Fuel – a Wasted Opportunity by Rolf Stein, CEO

Over the past few months, the Coalition Government has shown itself to be firmly on the side of the waste to energy sector.  The Green Investment Bank has identified energy from waste technologies as a key priority for investment; Landfill Tax has been raised, further encouraging alternative waste management solutions; and Government revisions to the bandings at which Renewable Obligation Certificates are awarded have – pending final confirmation – maintained a positive level of subsidy for Advanced Conversion Technologies, which convert waste into clean, renewable energy.  In short, the energy from waste industry should have little to fear from Government policy.  And yet, there remains one crucial oversight which, if overlooked, could have dramatic consequences for the sector.

Crucial to the continued expansion of energy from waste in the UK is a steady supply of Refuse-Derived Fuel (RDF).  This material is formed from dried, shredded solid waste, and provides the highly calorific raw material for many energy from waste processes.  Yet, despite its value and importance to the energy from waste sector, this essential material is being exported to the continent in ever increasing quantities, undermining the development of the sector in the UK.

The Environment Agency – which is tasked with licensing companies to export RDF – reported last March that between January 1 2011 and February 24 2012, 290,000 tonnes of RDF was exported from the UK to continental Europe. This compares to just 67,000 tonnes exported between September 2010 and September 2011.  At the same time, the amount permitted for export increased markedly, from 1,143,000 tonnes in September 2011 to 1,921,000 tonnes in February 2012.  Since these figures were released, the amount of RDF licensed for export has increased even further – all  this suggests that the trend of exporting RDF is accelerating and shows no sign of slowing down.

The increasing export of RDF poses a serious threat to the waste to energy sector in the UK.  Aside from restricting the amount of RDF available for energy from waste plants to process, the continued export of RDF also serves to undermine confidence in the domestic waste to energy industry.  Considerable levels of private investment are needed to develop and expand the UK’s waste to energy infrastructure – such investment will not be forthcoming if the government cannot
demonstrate a commitment to expanding the industry, and deliver a steady supply of raw materials.  By identifying waste to energy as a priority for investment, but at the same time allowing the export of ever-higher levels of RDF, the Government is sending mixed messages which threaten the growth of the waste to energy sector.

Not only does the continued export of RDF damage the waste to energy sector, but it also serves to hold back the UK as a whole as we aim to meet demanding renewable energy targets.  The Government has committed itself to producing 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.  The importance of RDF to reaching these targets is clear: the top importers of the UK’s RDF also happen to be some of the greatest consumers of renewable energy in the EU, countries where the energy share from renewable sources is already higher than in the UK.  The expansion of energy from waste in Sweden, Denmark and Germany, fuelled by British RDF, is helping them to boost renewables and drive down emissions at the expense of our own carbon targets.

In summary, the continued export of RDF is in many ways a Catch-22 issue.  According to licensed RDF exporters, RDF is exported because there is a shortage of processing capacity in the UK.  However, we will struggle to improve this
capacity as long as companies continue to profit by selling RDF abroad.  Clearly, it is not for individual companies to stop the lucrative export of RDF; rather, the Government must enact measures to stem the tide of the valuable resource escaping our shores.  Until action is taken on this, the waste to energy sector in the UK will struggle to reach its huge potential.


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