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Feature

Helping the UK energy-from-waste industry succeed


Simon Ellam, Siemens

Government legislation and pressure on local authority waste management strategies have, in recent years, led to the explosive growth of the energy-from-waste industry. Simon Ellam from Siemens Industry Automation looks at some of the market drivers and standard issues facing plant controllers and operators.

A major emerging industry in the UK over the last five years has been the energy-from-waste (EfW) market. This form of renewable energy generation has been driven by the Government's Renewables Obligation (RO) which has been imposed on the UK electricity industry and requires that up to 15.4% of the electricity the energy suppliers generate must be from renewable sources by 2015.

Adding to this, industry growth has also been fuelled by the ongoing issue of local authority waste management obligations and how they best tackle their legislative commitments.

The incineration of waste to generate power is becoming more commonplace across the country as local authorities struggle to fulfil their side of the Landfill Directive which involves diverting waste away from straightforward landfill disposal. Non-compliance could result in hefty fines.

What is energy-from-waste?

Energy-from-waste is a broad term covering a number of different and diverse process technologies such as gasification, pyrolysis, anaerobic digestion, as well as a number of other emerging technologies, which are generally at the heart of a number of package plant deliverables such as material handling and treatment infrastructure.

"Industry growth has been fuelled by the ongoing issue of local authority waste management obligations and how they best tackle their legislative commitments."
 

This modular approach can often pose a major challenge for contractors, EPCs and, ultimately, the energy-from-waste plant operators who are looking to engineer a coherent control system which will allow the consistent and efficient running of the complete plant.

The challenge of co-ordinating how a package plant is controlled and bringing a degree of standardisation across the different deliverables falls mainly to the EPC or main contractor involved. However, increasingly the end-customer or plant operator involved is not prepared to accept a disparate control strategy as they typically have to live with this for the 25-year + asset life of the plant.

A standard approach needed

The answer lies in the provision of a standardised approach to technologies which incorporate open standards and protocols. This solution underpins the task of engineering and connecting ‘islands of automation’ together. The hardware aspect is the most obvious, but is only the first benefit of having a standardised approach to engineering.

Process automation comprises a number of control system solutions including distributed control systems (DCS), programmable logic controllers (PLC), fieldbus networking along with all the peripheral equipment, such as motor control and instrumentation that allow these control systems to give optimal control of a customer's assets.

The key aspect of such a broad portfolio of potential solutions for energy-from-waste is the ability to offer sound engineering advice that fits the many and varied technical and organisational models that have emerged within this market over recent years.

A good example of this is the growth in Private Finance Initiative (PFI) style contracts as local councils seek to outsource the design, manufacturer and operation of a waste-to-energy plant on their behalf for 25 years.

This type of project is typically contracted to a consortium, or alliance of suppliers, who possess the combination of requisite skills from initial design to de-commission. In this type of contract there is increasing focus on efficiently integrating the various elements of packaged plant whilst combining this with a longer term view of optimising operational costs over the ownership period. This can be crucial in determining whether a long-term contract is profitable or not.

With this in mind, the second and most important phase of standardising the process solution in an energy-from-waste plant is to achieve the same look and feel of application or operational display that the operator uses to monitor and control the plant.

"A poorly conceived plant control system will [lead] to higher consumable / energy costs."
 

This allows operators to gain a quick and intuitive understanding of how to control an energy-from-waste plant and, if a co-ordinated approach has been achieved in the design and build phase, the operator will not need to manage different skill sets to operate different areas of plant. This standardised approach brings huge operational savings and allows the flexibility of operators and shifts to be applied to different roles without upheaval.

Being in control

For the enterprises that will go on to operate these waste-to-energy plants the importance of the control system to influence shareholder value should not be underestimated. The major factors that will impact on business value at a simplistic level are labour costs, consumable/energy costs, asset utilisation and environmental/regulatory constraints.

A poorly conceived plant control system will create complexity leading to increased labour requirements and dependence on higher skilled labour, reduced plant control and flexibility leading to higher consumable/energy costs and poor asset utilisation.

Generally the contractual relationship between the owner/operator of these waste-to-energy plants and their end customer is tied into their ability to serve (waste that cannot be processed is likely to go to landfill at a heavy cost) and to environmental compliance (heavy fines will be levied for non-compliance).

This requires the site control system to offer a high level of availability and the ability to constantly monitor and adjust/optimise the process to give the lowest running costs, whilst achieving environmental compliance targets.

There is no doubt that the energy-from-waste market is proving to be more sophisticated in its ability to drive for profitable operation.

Capital procurement processes have traditionally associated lower importance with automation and control equipment as this forms a small proportion of the overall costs of capital equipment and construction work. However most contractors taking on design, build and operate contracts, such as those found in the energy-from-waste market are now attaching much higher importance to this category of supply. This approach really can mean the difference between a long-term success and a long-term sentence.

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