Energy from Waste and the green recovery: reflections from last week’s virtual EfW conference

Every other month, Dr Adam Read, External Affairs Director @SuezUK, discusses the big issues from his point of view. Here, he looks back at last week's virtual EfW conference and considers where the sector is as we reposition ourselves at the heart of the UK’s green recovery agenda… March 2021
Energy from Waste and the green recovery: reflections from last week’s virtual EfW conference

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  Dr Adam Read, External Affairs Director, 
Suez recycling and recovery UK

So what’s new?

Its not been a great few months for those of us at the heart of the EfW business, with a number of high profile setbacks, including declined planning applications for a number of new sites, campaign groups attacking a number of planned facilities on carbon grounds and their ‘poor’ thermal efficiency, and of course the recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme which suggested that EfW is holding back recycling and has been presenting an inaccurate picture when it comes to energy recovery emissions and carbon balances.

Now, we all know that things are never black and white, and most of these arguments have been heard plenty of times before, but there is a bit of a groundswell building up against EfW as we look to move towards decarbonisation and a circular economy. As a sector we must face these issues head-on and create a new narrative about the importance of our sites and technologies as we transition to a low carbon and resource efficient society. Which is why it was great to see so may of the sector’s leading lights, operators, funders, policy-makers and innovators on-line last week for the first virtual EfW Conference, an event that I have always enjoyed from both a technical and social perspective when held face to face in central London, but one which pleasantly surprised me this year in terms of the quantity and quality of sessions, and the opportunity to catch up with colleagues from around the world. 

In light of the sector’s recent media coverage, I was expecting the virtual EfW conference to be a must attend event this past week, to see how the sector is responding to the multiple challenges currently facing our sector, from public perception, carbon balances, thermal efficiency, and overcapacity concerns to unproven technology and feedstock hungry solutions in the wrong place to access heat offtake or new end markets. And I wasn’t disappointed….. 

Quality Conference Content

And I wasn’t disappointed, it was a really busy 3 days with so many top-drawer speakers and panellists, plus a huge number of paying delegates proving that there is plenty of interest in EfW business opportunities now and over the next 20 years. A particular highlight for me was the steer provided from Government on where the sector is heading, with the Secretary of State Rebecca Pow highlighting the role that EfW has to play (both now and in the foreseeable future) as part of the UK’s sustainable waste & resource management agenda and from BEIS officials about their commitment to heat offtake and carbon capture storage innovation. It seems that our sector and its evolution is firmly on the Government agenda, and by working together we can ensure we play a significant and appropriate part of the UK transition to a low carbon economy, whilst we heard about the policy reforms happening in the European Union and the position that EfW is taking there in terms of ‘enabling’ the circular economy. 

Day 1 had a number of valuable sessions focused on the immediate needs of the sector, from increasing heat offtake opportunities and improving the thermal efficiency of existing plants, to planning concerns surrounding new facilities plus a range of permitting and licensing challenges. This set the event up nicely for Day 2 where we took a deep dive around a number of core themes including international market opportunities (Brazil and Australia were two that I dropped into), investment opportunities and investable conditions, and the likely development of smaller scale sites and advanced technologies etc. Surprisingly, we were all still going strong on Day 3 where the technology innovation theme was central to the debates and sessions, featuring plenty of conversations, case studies and insights on carbon capture and storage and hydrogen-based solutions. Absolutely fascinating, whatever the session. 

Another of the standout sessions for me was the leaders debate with plenty of honesty from the industry’s biggest names, and a slice of vision too. The panel, including my own CEO John Scanlon, acknowledged that this is a pivotal time for our sector and wider resource management in light of the decarbonisation agenda, the drive for circular economy solutions and greater resource efficiency, aligned with the imminent DEFRA policy reforms for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and consistent recycling collections which will significantly change the feedstocks received at EfW plants in the next 4 years. Rightly so, decarbonising the feedstocks we handle at our plants is critical, through more effective sorting and segregation at source, but this will not be enough for the sector and the ESA will be launching a sector decarbonisation strategy in the near future identifying what else will need to happen as we work collaboratively with our customers on driving forward low carbon solutions and technologies. There was a uniform belief that our sector will increasingly move towards heat offtake and chemicals production (hydrogen or fuels) and away from electricity, as the grid goes more renewable, but that the journey to a circular economy will take 3 or 4 decades to achieve, and during that  transition we need EfW facilities to manage system leakage, contaminated recycling and non-recyclables and we need Government to help  set the right policy framework to enable these facilities to play their role fully in terms of stimulating heat offtake and supporting innovation around carbon capture and storage etc.

John Scanlon, Chief Executive Officer, Suez recycling and recovery UK,
speaking in the Leaders' Panel at Energy from Waste 2021.

The panel was also clear in its vision for EfW as an enabler for green recovery, starting with improving the efficiency of our plants, working with new end markets that will want the chemicals, fuels and heat we can generate and displacing other more polluting sources, and then embracing carbon capture and storage.

But, it will all come down to our ability to build the new infrastructure at the right time and in the right place to maximise its social and environmental benefit, but that will only come if the Government policy landscape is stable and supportive, enabling private sector investment to come forward when most needed. Lets see how that pans out in the coming months….. 

The panel also debated how well the sector was doing in explaining what we do and its criticality to a range of key stakeholders including the public, politicians and campaign groups. The unanimous response was ‘we must do better’ ….. we remain the bad guys, or the problem, yet we must change the narrative so that we are not only a solution to a societal problem (consumption and waste) but also as a positive contributor to a planned green recovery. We must simplify our messaging, open our doors, and showcase what a great job we do, plus highlight all the innovation that is happening. We are a sector making huge progress and we should be proud of this, rather than defending our position each week against the next criticism or complaint. We have an opportunity now through technology innovation and the clarity of the decarbonisation agenda to reposition our sector as part of the solution and support not only more recycling, and waste prevention, but the greening and decarbonisation of other sectors like transport, manufacturing and agriculture with the materials we can provide them with. 

Event Reflections

What I love about this event, whether in person (as in previous years, I recall this being the last event I physically attended in 2020) or ‘virtual’ is that there is always something for everyone, whatever your interest. I am not an engineer or technologist, but I found plenty of sessions to join where I could build my understanding, deepen my appreciation or just open my eyes to something new (like hydrogen). After a number of sessions each day I am now confident that I have captured new insights and perspectives on a range of key trends, new policies and possible interventions to drive the changes we want to happen around plant efficiencies, heat offtake, potential end markets and carbon pricing etc. Plus in terms of my day job, the sessions focused on immediate policy reforms and the likely impact on EfW feedstocks and their calorific value were just what was needed. 

Overall, I think the virtual event was a real success, and with so much online content (parallel workshops) I could quickly flip between the sessions and listen in to many more debates than I might have done if I had been travelling to and from the event on each day – after all some of the sessions were live at 8am and others didn’t finish until 6pm!

 Plus of course,  I will shortly be able to download the slides and reflect on the content with my colleagues over the coming weeks. Afterall the real benefit of attending conferences on the whole is to gain new insights and updates and be able to share them across the SUEZ business – so that will keep me busy in the coming weeks. As the sessions were all recorded, at some point in the near future we should all be able watch back our favourite sessions or review those you failed to get to, which is another of the great benefits of an on-line event. 

Finally, the only potential downside identified with these types of  events is the lack of physical chit-chat, in the sessions, over coffee and when having lunch.

But, given the quality of the content, and sheer quantity of sessions, this was not a problem for me, plus of course you could use the chat function, ask questions or connect with other participants through the on-line portal. As we return to some form of ‘new normal’ post lockdown in the summer of 2021 I expect many events to remain on-line or offer hybrid models so that delegates from far and wide can access the event, participate in the debates, and get their questions answered without the need for travelling, with its associated costs in time and environmental impact. Let’s embrace the technology and make the most of these events, they have a key role to play now and going forward…… 

Finally, I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me to speak on 2 panels and to chair another. I was part of some lively debates, a number of heated discussions and faced quite a few challenging questions. But we all participated with a sense of camaraderie, a firm belief that we are working together to deliver a sector that is more resilient, robust and appropriate, and with a positive attitude that the sector is making progress and we must continue to do  so. I thoroughly enjoyed the event and would recommend it to anyone looking to understand the EfW market, the big trends and the policy reforms – see you all next year!


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