Waste To Energy: Failure Is Not An Option

DSCF0063Lee Kenny, group manager field engineering, FM Global, discusses why failure is not an option when it comes to the UK’s energy from waste, and reveals simple steps to mitigating the risk of waste fires. CIWM Journal Online Exclusive


The waste-to-energy industry is helping to solve the growing problem of what to do with our waste.  Worldwide, the revenues from the industry at the end of 2012 accounted for £11 billion, and are expected to reach £18 billion by 2016 according to the Frost & Sullivan report. The UK is part of this growth, and more units are expected to come on stream in the UK in the coming 24 months.

The waste management companies have stepped up to be involved in building these units; moving from traditional waste handling to integrated plants combining waste handling and power generation into a single line process – all parts needing to operate effectively to achieve the overall benefit.  This move presents new challenges.  Building these plants takes considerable investment, a secure supply of waste material and has proven to take considerable time to plan and then execute.

“The waste management field has seen the damage that is caused when a fire breaks out at a waste plant. This attracts media comment, affects a local area and brings unwanted attention”

The waste management field has seen the damage that is caused when a fire breaks out at a waste plant. This attracts media comment, affects a local area and brings unwanted attention. Being within the sector, waste-to-energy companies are under similar scrutiny. Further to this, the significant investments involved means that there is a keen focus on delivering results and returns to investors.  Consequently, a robust process around business resilience is needed to minimise the frequency and severity of operational incidents to maintain focus, reassure neighbours and secure investors.

At FM Global, we work closely alongside waste-to-energy companies in developing engineering solutions to ensure that this doesn’t happen. We believe that developing ‘business resilience’ is about ensuring that the right strategies and technologies are in place so that you don’t get knocked down in the first place.

To ensure a waste-to-energy company’s business continuity seven days a week, 365 days per year, there are two common property risk management challenges to consider:

Fire Hazards

When handling volumes of waste, there is an ever present threat of fire.  This is nothing new and means that combinations of automatic fire protection are needed. However, automation into a single line process has brought other vulnerabilities to consider. It is the waste handling and control systems that can be most vulnerable.  If a fire continues to grow unchecked, then essential cranes may become damaged, and in extreme circumstances, the structural integrity of the bunker halls may be jeopardised. Without the cranes, the waste cannot be moved towards the furnaces for burning.

To handle the waste automated conveyor systems are used. These systems often use rubber belts to handle the waste. If they become involved in a fire, the rubber itself can provide enough fuel to jeopardise the conveyor systems. If the conveyors then collapse, there may be no way of moving waste or removing ash from the furnace. Both of these scenarios could close the operations.  Manual fire-fighting is often challenging because the conveyors may be elevated or in confined areas. Installing automatic sprinkler systems above them and interlocking the conveyors to shut down when the systems alarm will help to mitigate the hazard.

The waste sometimes needs to be prepared as fuel which often involves a system of shredders.  Again, this process attracts an increased risk of localised fires.  This may be exacerbated by pressurised cans containing propellants in the waste stream e.g.-  flammable aerosols.  Isolating these areas and ensuring that they are adequately protected with automatic sprinklers can control the hazard.

Preventing Breakdowns

EIS0030EThe combination of power generation and the waste management brings together a variety of different automated and complex operations. At its very heart, the introduction of power generating equipment brings elements that were not common to the traditional waste management industry. These power generating elements have offered a new and compelling revenue stream but also a challenge to ensure they are free of interruptions and breakdown.

In particular, the use of high speed turbines and generators require a keen focus on maintenance and operating conditions.  The maintenance of these objects is crucial and following the correct regimes is essential in minimising potential outages.

The use of this complex equipment requires highly skilled and trained operators.  This means investing in a new stream of talent to the industry to ensure the continuity of operations.  As time has demonstrated the action by skilful, trained operators can avert an incident and lessen the impact on operations.

In today’s competitive world, waste-to-energy companies must look to build business resilience so that they can retain market share and reputation during these times of uncertainty. In order to manage the complex risks in which they face, company management must view risk management as a form of competitive advantage. At FM Global, we believe it is better to prevent a loss than try to recover from one afterward, and if waste to energy companies can do this, there is no doubt they will be able to secure their reputation, market share and even their share price in what is a challenging business environment.

Simple Steps To Mitigate The Risks

Waste fires

  • Install fixed and automatic sprinkler protection at roof level, fed from an adequate water supply


  • Install fixed, automatic sprinkler protection over critical conveyors or develop a contingency plan for the movement of waste materials in the event of a conveyor loss.
  • Shut down the conveyor system in the event of a fire to stop it spreading.

Fuel Preparation – Shredding

  • Isolate shredders by means of solid construction
  • Install fixed automatic fire protection over shredders

Human Element

  • If contractors are employed, ensure they have the correct level of training and supervision to understand the hazards and procedures at the site.

Avoiding Breakdowns

  • Training of operators is crucial. To preserve operation it is vital that investment in these people is made by continually training and educating them.
  • Establish and invest in maintenance routines. These should be tailored towards the operationally critical and larger cost items such turbines where a loss of generation capacity would have a direct impact on the site’s financial performance.

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