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Anaerobic digestion can help UK reach renewable energy targets


The role of solar, wind and tidal power in achieving the EU’s target of creating 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 is well known. However, the energy derived from waste in helping to meet these targets shouldn’t be dismissed. The last UK government estimated that the anaerobic digestion sector had the potential to use the UK's 100 million tonnes of organic waste to generate up to seven per cent of the country's renewable energy needs by 2020, and while voices within the sector suggest the industry is growing, enormous untapped potential remains.

Before its potential is reached, the industry faces significant hurdles in the UK over the coming weeks and months – not least with the increasing uncertainty around the Conservative government’s next move on energy policy, after already cutting feed in tariff incentives for anaerobic digestion by 20%. Meanwhile, since April 2015 anaerobic digestion has not been eligible for relief under the Enterprise Investment Scheme and Venture Capital Trusts.

Overcoming stigma

Another constant hurdle is the public’s mindset towards renewable energy projects. Wind farms and solar farms receive a lot of opposition and this is reported extensively in the media, but anaerobic digestion plants face strong resistance too, when proposals to build within or near a local community come to light. Accusations of it being a health hazard that will destroy the landscape, not to mention the perceptions around the smell and noise it produces (not necessarily founded in reality), place them in a negative light. So the stigma of having a waste management development on one’s doorstep remains.

This notion is in contrast to the concept of renewable energy generally receiving widespread endorsement in Britain. Most people are supportive, just as long as the plants and projects aren’t built near their homes. But concerns - for the most part - are outdated, as technology, driven in part by government legislation, have progressed to such an extent, that these issues have been overcome. Our European cousins, tend to have a ‘we-are-all-in-this-together’ mindset when trying to meet the 2020 emission targets set by the EU. They accept they have to play their part and if this means having an anaerobic digestion plant in their community then so be it.

Law firms can work with planning authorities, landowners and the Environment Agency to ensure the application on paper is fit for purpose. Yet concerns from the public usually remain. DEFRA and DETI acknowledge this in their guidance paper on Generating energy from waste, including anaerobic digestion, and 'recommend improving communications and information on energy from waste technologies'.

And of course anaerobic digestion companies have a huge part to play in this, particularly when looking to build close to a community. They can emphasise the positive impact a plant will bring to the community, by relaying how many homes could be powered using clean energy produced from the plant; highlighting the benefits to other parts of the community that a financial investment will bring (if there is one) and potentially the number of jobs that will be created both directly and indirectly. Communicating that intrusion will be kept to an absolute minimum through consultations, letters to residents and the media is also essential – no smell, no noise, no health hazards.

Very often resistance stems from inaccurate information and poor communication between plant owners and the community. Instead of waiting for the opposition to grow, presenting the public with the facts and finding people who hold the same viewpoint within the community and understand the benefits, will help.

Legislative differences

Anaerobic digestion plant operators also need to be mindful of current legislation. Within the UK it seems that the devolved governments are one step ahead of England in ensuring that there is enough useful waste for anaerobic digestion plants to produce a meaningful amount of energy. Scotland and Northern Ireland have already passed legislation that requires many businesses to separate food waste. Wales seems likely to follow in its Environment Bill in a couple of years. Local councils in Wales and Scotland have implemented waste management targets, which would not be achievable without a suitable system in place to capture large amounts of the household food waste. England, on the other hand, doesn’t have a suitable system in place to sort food waste, particularly for anaerobic digestion and as a result could have difficulty complying with the EU Waste Framework Directive.

A higher landfill tax doesn’t seem to be the answer in encouraging more companies and councils to manage waste more effectively in England. Already the existing tax level is driving much of the waste out to countries like Germany, which imports millions of tonnes of rubbish every year from the UK for its waste incineration plants to power millions of homes. Instead, households and companies need to be incentivised to sort food waste, preferably into three categories - for human consumption, for animal feed and for anaerobic digestion.

By July 2015, well over 200 plants were up and running and 30 of those were capable of contributing enough biomethane into the grid to heat around 100,000 homes in the UK. The Ecologist predicts that next year, there should be enough biomethane for the companies which already supply all-renewable electricity, to also offer customers this organic gas. But food sorting and categorisation needs to continue to grow across the country, particularly when AD plants are expanding rapidly in the UK and more waste will be needed to feed them over the next few years.


Diane Yarrow, Partner, B P Collins LLP, advises waste management and anaerobic digestion plant owners and operators across the South East of England.


Posted 26/08/2015 by Libi Israeli

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