Welcome to the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC)'s Youth Advisory Panel (YAP)'s blog. The DECC YAP is a group of young people aged between 15 and 25 from all over the UK, with a wide-range of backgrounds, from academia to activism.

Our aim is to inform everyone and anyone about DECC's activities and likewise to help DECC understand and take into account the concerns of young people. We are a medium of consultancy and conversation. Much of our work looks at finding a 'Pathway to 2050', reviewing how energy with be supplied and used in the next four decades, so follow us and join us on the journey!

Monday, 13 June 2011

Give Burning Rubbish a Chance

It was refreshing to discuss the merits of biomass incineration with the DECC Land-Based Renewables Team at the DECC YAP meeting 02/06/11, as this form of biomass energy, in my opinion, too frequently is the object of unwarranted hostility.

The government is under legal obligation to make 15% of energy produced renewable by 2020. For many people, wind and solar are the forms of renewable energy that spring to mind. It is not so widely known that producing energy from incinerating waste is also a renewable form of energy, one which produces a third of the UK's renewable energy, according to the most recent statistics.

Unlike solar or wind power, both popularly conceived of as a ‘clean’ means of generating energy - even if people may oppose, for example, having a wind turbine or farm in their locality for other reasons - waste-to--energy incinerator plants are highly contentious. In general, the idea of incinerating waste is met with opposition and mistrust. People are wary about ‘dirty’ pollutants caused by combustion of waste, and suspicious of local authorities whom they think may divert collected household recyclables from recycling plants to waste incineration plants, under a smokescreen of sustainability.

Producing energy from municipal waste provides a solution to two pressing problems; increasing landfill tax charges and methane gas produced as a consequence of waste decomposition in landfill. By diverting waste from landfill local authorities are able to save money. In essence, biomass energy from municipal waste makes use of waste as a saleable resource from which money can be made, rather than costly taxes incurred.

When rubbish is landfilled we have effectively given up attempting to extract any further resource from it. However, the landfilled rubbish will continue to have a detrimental effect. As it decomposes it will emit methane gas which is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 (produced by combustion).

Incinerating garbage that would otherwise be landfilled maximises its inherent resource value. To convert waste to energy forms a logical part of the waste hierarchy - reduce, reuse, recycle, recover, disposal – for which I feel waste-to-energy deserves recognition among environmental circles that are rash to criticise and reject. As long as it doesn’t occur to the detriment of recycling (higher up the waste hierarchy) biomass from waste makes sense economically. It also makes sense politically, because the UK produces enough of its own reliably replenishable garbage.

According to the Land-Based Renewables Team stringent regulations exist to ensure plants do not emit toxic pollutants into the atmosphere while combusting waste; indeed, regulations on incineration are 10 – 100 times stricter than those on fossil fuel power stations. In fact, so strict are the rules about emitting harmful gases, ‘that many times more dioxin [the principle objectionable chemical] is now released from home fireplaces and backyard barbecues than from incineration’. Yet despite this, such plants are still persist to be considered ‘dirty’ in the public imagination. This is especially unfair, I feel, considering that waste to energy plants offer a solution to the expensive and escalating problem of municipal waste.

In Amsterdam the public tram system and street lighting is powered by incinerating the city’s garbage. I especially like how a public resource (we all contribute to producing waste, after all) is converted into electricity that is used to power a public service. If waste incineration plants in the UK were seen to have some public benefit, like in Amsterdam, surely the public would be more receptive to the idea?

If you would like to view my other posts on energy please view my blog WasteAM

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