The Renewable Energy Association’s chief executive, Dr Nina Skorupska, sets out how industry-led initiatives and Government policy can help realise the potential for renewable technologies in the circular economy
The circular economy is increasingly taking root in the UK sustainability debate. The central principle is simple. Sending waste to landfill is a bad idea, because there’s only so much landfill space available; because disposing of organic wastes in landfill causes methane emissions that damage the climate; and because there’s a lot of value in waste for making recycled products and green energy.
Beyond the basic principle though, a lot of people in the UK still don’t have a clear idea of what a circular economy really looks like. When it comes to seizing the value in organic wastes, renewable technologies – composting, anaerobic digestion (AD), waste to energy, gasification and pyrolysis and advanced biofuel production – all have a key role to play. I’d like to focus a little bit on the non-energy side of things first, as readers may be less familiar with the REA’s involvement on that side of things.
Composting turns food waste and green waste into a sustainable soil improver for use in farming, forestry, horticulture and growing media. Similarly, AD produces digestate, a sustainable fertiliser for farming and land reclamation. These recycled products can partially or completely substitute for peat as a growing media and also replace artificial fertilisers, which are made of finite, fossil-based hydrocarbons (basically fossil fuels).
AD also produces biogas, of course. The Government’s renewable energy incentives – Feed-in Tariffs (FITs), Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) and the Renewables Obligation/Contracts for Differences for larger schemes – are the main drivers for AD in the UK. However, whilst these incentives have undoubtedly boosted the economics of UK AD, they have also been fraught with problems and instability.
At the REA, our “bread and butter” work is making these incentives support the deployment of renewable technologies as best they can, but we are also working towards a world where the economics of renewable energy projects are less dependent on consumer levies and tax-funded financial support, and less vulnerable to policy changes.
To move beyond subsidy, we need to build confidence and increase demand in the markets for recycled products and renewable energy. This is what our colleagues at REAL do with their Biofertiliser, Compost and Green Gas Certification Schemes (BCS, CCS and GGCS).
The BCS and CCS ensure the safety and quality of digestate and compost, enabling AD and composting to formally count as recycling under the rules set out by the Environment Agency or SEPA. This can give compost and AD operators access to more feedstock streams, as local authorities and private companies seek to meet recycling targets.
The logos are also a mark of quality, meaning the product is better recognised and more valuable in the marketplace. Produce grown with certified digestate and compost can also meet the more demanding standards of food assurance schemes and high-end food retailers. The schemes have both been recently upgraded to improve the experience for producers and consumers.
The GGCS, meanwhile, provides a means for end-users to buy biomethane directly from the grid, by tracking it through the supply chain on a “one unit in, one unit out” principle. Making it easier for end-users to buy green products (creating a market “pull”) means that over time the sector will be less dependent on the Government incentives (the policy “push”).
Government Support Remains Crucial
Nevertheless, there is still a lot more Government can and must do right now to ensure renewable technologies realise their full potential in growing the circular economy. In the run-up to the general election next April, we’re calling on the Government to:
- follow the Environmental Audit Committee’s advice and ban councils from sending food waste to landfill
- impose statutory collection of food waste from commercial properties, as in Scotland
- ease the regulatory burden on the organics recycling sector by making it more closely aligned to agricultural regulation
- review the Feed-in Tariff for small AD in 2015 to redress the unwarranted tariff degression sequence now in train
- provide effective CfD support for conventional EfW and introduce a minimum reserve for the emerging technologies gasification and pyrolysis (as for wave and tidal stream)
- ensure a more strategic approach to commercial and industrial waste so that it is available for energy generation
- harmonise UK and European waste regulations so more waste is used for recycling and clean energy at home instead of being exported overseas
- set out a clear increasing trajectory to 2020 for the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation to restore certainty to the renewable fuels market
- implement targeted support for the development of advanced biofuels from wastes, such as biodiesel from used cooking oil, bioethanol from municipal solid waste and biomethane from AD
- support the European Commission’s ambitious Circular Economy Framework
- commit to sustained growth in renewable energy in the National Energy Plans required under the EU 2030 Energy and Climate Change Framework.
More detailed policy recommendations across all renewable energy sectors will be unveiled in our forthcoming manifesto. Watch this space!