Energy, waste and sustainable lifestyles | Brussels Blog

Energy, waste and sustainable lifestyles

posted by on 29th Jul 2020

Climate economic studies convincingly show that one of the best investments to fix climate in the medium run is to invest heavily in green R&D.

Bjorn Lomborg in The New York Post, a Murdoch paper

Lurwick Energy from Waste plant

The No Time to Waste report

Policy Connect, with support from cross party MPs, have published an informative report, No Time to Waste. It recommends Government should release a policy statement supporting the future role of Energy from Waste (EfW) as being the best available residual waste treatment. Residual waste means the waste that is left after recycling.

It is cautious about more advanced Energy from Waste (EfW) schemes, such as Advanced Thermal Treatments (ATT) saying there was
“limited support or evidence of ATT being currently proven on a large, sustainable scale. EfW can therefore be taken to refer to available and proven combustion technologies.”

This note will argue that the urgency of the climate crisis includes fast tracking Advanced Thermal Treatments, particularly microwave pyrolysis, with funding also found for the development of innovative schemes in town planning.

First a few points on the No Time to Waste report.

Energy from Waste under-estimated?

The No Time to Waste report says:

In 2018, the Government identified at least 0.2 tWh of accessible EfW waste heat, which alone would double the proportion of UK heat provided through heat networks if utilised.

Possibly 0.2tWh is a typo: it is hard to find its source but 0.2tWh is 200 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of ‘accessible’ waste heat. As, there are just under 28 million households in the UK, this ‘accessible EfW heat’ is just over 7 kWh per household per year. The average household uses more than 10,000 kWh a year for heating.

The article, Lerwick. the district heating scheme Shetland Islands, gave the heat recovery for Shetlands’ Energy from Waste facility. It was 3,000 kWh of heat per tonne of waste. UK households create about a tonne of waste per year so a target of 7 kWh per household per year that is inherent in No Time to Waste seems unambitious.

Local planning restraints

No Time to Waste recommends that:

Permitted development rights should be extended to EfW pipe work connections, as is being consulted on in Scotland. This would create a more level playing field in terms of the planning system, enabling EfW heat networks to compete with traditional heat sources (gas and electricity).

It also recommends:

The Government should revise the National Planning Policy Framework’s presumption in favour of sustainable development to include proposed developments using EfW heat.

These are good points. However, as discussed later, the integration of EfW with the local planning system needs much greater emphasis.

Biogenic waste and fossil waste

One the references used by No Time to Waste is Energy recovery for residual waste A carbon based modelling approach from the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). This makes the distinction between biogenic and fossil fuel waste.

Diagram from ‘Energy recovery for residual waste’, Defra 2014

Biogenic waste consists of items that were made from recently grown biological materials – like paper and wood. Fossil waste is made from fossil carboniferous material – like plastic. No Time to Waste says:

In order to drive EfW decarbonisation, the level of fossil carbon in the waste must be minimised, and the biogenic (renewable) component must make up the majority of residual waste.

Initially it may be unclear why biogenic CO2 should be considered differently from the CO2 from fossil sources like plastic. Chemically both are the same. Emissions of ‘fossil CO2’ are just as likely to be later captured by photosynthesis and stored in biomass as is ‘biogenic CO2’. However, there is international agreement that, for accounting purposes, the two should be treated differently. This accounting is part of an intergovernmental blame game that is not of concern here.

But there is also a practical difference. When sent to landfill, most biogenic waste rots producing the greenhouse gases, CO2 and the more powerful methane. On the other hand, waste from fossil sources is largely plastic, which is stable for a very long time, producing little in the way of greenhouse gases. It could be said that landfill sequesters the carbon in plastic.

Incineration plants

The main emissions from incineration plants are steam and CO2, but in the UK, they have a reputation for being large emitters of other pollution, more locally dangerous to health. No Time to Waste disagrees, quoting Public Health England:

Modern, well run and regulated municipal waste incinerators are not a significant risk to public health. While it is not possible to rule out adverse health effects from these incinerators completely, any potential effect for people living close by is likely to be very small.

As long ago as 2010, the New York Times Green Blog reported different attitudes in other countries. In Europe Finds Clean Energy in Trash, but U.S. Lags, it reported:

Planners [in Denmark] take pains to separate residential traffic from trucks delivering garbage, and some of the newest plants are encased in elaborate outer shells that resemble sculptures.

“New buyers are usually O.K. with the plant,” said Hans Rast, president of the homeowners’ association in Horsholm ….

“What they like is that they look out and see the forest,” he said. (The living rooms in this enclave of town houses face fields and trees, while the plant is roughly some 400 yards over a back fence that borders the homes’ carports). The lower heating costs don’t hurt, either. Eighty percent of Horsholm’s heat and 20 percent of its electricity come from burning trash.

Decarbonising Energy from Waste

No Time to Waste highlights a scheme by Fortum for a scheme in Oslo, Norway, where

“A pilot demonstrated the possibility to capture 90% of all CO2 in the flue gas”.

It goes on to recommend that

“the Government should support the development and integration of Carbon Capture and Storage technology into EfW facilities, in anticipation of a future carbon tax.”

In A full-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) project initiated in Norway, Fortnum say:

The emissions from the plant contains steam and CO2. The flue gas is currently cleaned out of dioxins, NOX and CO. Now Fortum wants to capture the CO2. A pilot demonstrated the possibility to capture 90% of all CO2 in the flue gas. 58% of the waste incinerated at the plant is of biological origin, making the plant carbon-negative.

The recovery of 90% of the CO2 from flue gas, would substantially change the possibilities for Energy from Waste.


Small scale microwave pyrolysis

One advanced thermal treatment not considered by No Time to Waste is microwave energy in the pyrolysis of municipal solid waste. Pyrolysis heats waste residues in the absence of oxygen, which can produce alternative products such as syngas or chemicals such as naphtha.

An urgent mater for research should be to develop a microwave pyrolysis process small enough to use in conjunction with a local heat network. Ideally the process would have the capability of being fired up quickly enough to take advantage of low carbon electricity when it is available.

It would then be possible to use them in a similar way to bitcoin batteries.

Energy storage and the example of “bitcoin batteries”

A quick start small pyrolysis plant could act in a similar fashion to “bitcoin batteries”, which act as backup batteries for renewable energy. The argument for bitcoin batteries is the following.

Renewable energy supplies such as wind or solar, are intermittent. TribTalk describes the problem:

Dealing with intermittency often involves building excess capacity. If you build enough wind turbines, they can still generate a lot of electricity even when the wind isn’t blowing very hard. The downside of excess capacity is that generation has to be curtailed, or “turned-down,” when the wind is blowing full speed and generation exceeds demand.

The crypto-currency, Bitcoin, is created using large amounts of computing power. Although the energy efficiency of this processing has improved substantially, it still uses large amounts of electricity, sometimes with large associated CO2 emissions.

Reimers continues discussing “flexible demand” for minimising CO2 emissions:

Another strategy is “flexible demand,” or shifting demand for electricity to times when renewables are over-generating, and there are both technical and economic reasons why crypto-mining may be well-suited to operate as flexible demand. For example, flexible demand processes have to be able to ramp up and down quickly in response to generation, and, unlike many industrial processes, crypto-mining machines can ramp from zero to a hundred percent in a matter of minutes.

The overall effect is that crypto-mining pays for the installation of extra renewable energy capacity but, when demand is high, crypto-mining switches off, releasing generating capacity to “keep the lights on”.

The target of new research should be to develop processes which can use microwave pyrolysis in a similar fashion to bitcoin batteries so that they use renewable electricity when it is in abundant supply and switch off when it is not.

Products of pyrolysis and their uses

There is an added advantage to microwave pyrolysis: If some of the pyrolysis products can be used to generate energy (heat and/or electric) when required, the pyrolysis products become a form of energy storage, but, for this to be environmentally sound, carbon capture and storage is necessary.

Although No Time to Waste rather dismiss Advanced Thermal Treatments, which have not been ‘currently proven on a large, sustainable scale’, it lists some pyrolysis products from pyrolysis and their uses: ‘syngas for transport fuels, jet fuel, or chemicals manufacturing such as naphtha’. Chemicals manufacturing includes making plastic.

The solid residues of pyrolysis are mostly carbon. These residues do not easily biodegrade so can be stored, used locally or transported for other uses. They can also be burnt for energy but if they are burnt, carbon must be captured and stored or transformed into other products.

Incineration and microwave pyrolysis combined

Microwave pyrolysis uses high temperatures so and produces heat as a by product, which can be fed into local heat networks. The timing of this heat will not always match the times that heat is being demanded by the heat networks.

There are different solutions to this mismatch. Some would include incineration of waste with no pyrolysis to produce heat.

Other solutions might include burning saved pyrolysis products to produce energy, heat and possibly electricity, when it is required. Elsewhere, I have suggested the use of torrefaction, a lightweight form of pyrolysis, to be used in in a similar way.

There is a large area for research, which should be pursued urgently.


Paying for research

As Bjorn Lomborg said in The New York Post:

“Climate economic studies convincingly show that one of the best investments to fix climate in the medium run is to invest heavily in green R&D.”

One of those economic studies is Climate change policy, innovation and growth by Dechezleprêtre et al. It is based on an analysis of patents in relevant fields as a measure of innovation. The study shows that public policies aimed at low carbon outcomes (such as the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme) can generate innovation in low-carbon technologies. However, the study warns that

“socially beneficial research opportunities are ignored by firms
because they are unable to fully capture the rewards of such innovations.”

The study also says:

“too little innovation is carried out in the economy compared to a
socially optimal situation.”

This highlights one problem when the funding for research is generated by monopoly rewards protected by patents: In some socially desirable areas of research some inventions can be protected by patents and some cannot.

Probably the most important area that misses out on funding for innovation is town planning: Innovations in the design of human lifestyles cannot easily be protected by intellectual property laws. The next section uses innovation in food production as an example.

Lifestyle research and intellectual property

Production of food is one of the most important parts of the way we live. Its impact is can be affected by the technology that produces food and also by the manner of its distribution. With rising populations and a climate crisis new ideas are necessary. Some of these ideas are funded through the monopoly protection patents can give. In Future Food Sources: Market Developments And Intellectual Property Landscape, IPpragmantics say:

In order to feed the current and projected global population, the world must produce 70% more food using less energy, fertiliser and pesticides. With available acreage estimated at just an additional 4%, it is not possible to simply plant more crops. A fourth agricultural revolution is needed; one with Future Farming Technologies at its heart. 18 It will need to look at both the demand and the value chain side of the food-scarcity equation, using technology to fundamentally re-engineer the value chain.

And in Farming the great indoors, Mewburn Ellis say:

Indoor farming, of course, has its challenges. LED efficiency, fertiliser compositions, and control systems in particular loom as potential barriers to be overcome. Technologies relating to control technology for “smart” greenhouses, as well as improvements in efficient LEDs, heating, fertilisers, and the underlying hydroponic technology could be immensely valuable. However, the seeds have been sown, and inventors who overcome these hurdles and obtain robust patent protection for their inventions will surely reap the fruits of their efforts.

But it is unlikely that innovative methods in horticulture can be funded in the same way. Innovative horticultural methods are unlikely to be funded by the monopoly proceeds from patent protection: Singing Frogs Farm is unlikely to be able to use intellectual property law to generate income to promote the widespread adoption of their innovations, despite their awards as farmer innovators.

Singing Frogs Far presents an example of a better way of food production,
… local food with local employment.

It is also unlikely that Place 54 Architects will be in a position to use IP law to help promote their idea of Market Garden Cities.

Planning permission: A source of funding for R&D into sustainable lifestyles.

Planning permission is a right that enhances the value of land. Usually it belongs to the landowner, unless they have sold it using a legal arrangement like a land option.

Although most sources say planning permission is not intellectual property, there are some characteristics in common. Planning permission is allocated by a bureaucratic process that confers valuable rights that are enforceable through the laws and force the state, similar to other intellectual property.

Planning permission can be given where projects are thought to have special worth to the community, where less worthy projects may not. As No Time to Waste points out, the National Planning Policy Framework currently contains a presumption in favour of sustainable development. This means sustainable developments may get permission in preference to less sustainable ones.

Enormous value is granted by planning permission. The right to have a building on a plot of land accounts for half the wealth of the UK. Give planning permission for 5,000 homes in the posher parts of the UK and the planning gain can easily be over £1 billion. (See Planning permission is not a natural resource.)

Let’s use the grant of planning permission to fund research and development into sustainable lifestyles.

A sample application for planning permission

My planning application will be for a sustainable settlement of about 3500 households on the edge of an existing town to be created with these targets:

High targets for:

  • % of residents employed locally
  • % of food produced locally
  • % of goods bought from local retailers
  • % of children attending local schools

Low targets for:

  • Average weekly travel distances.
  • Average carbon footprint of residents
  • Protection of ecosystems
  • Number of households with a private car

The settlement would of course have a local heat network using energy from waste and a microwave pyrolysis plant to act as a “bitcoin battery”.

Further reading

The Institute of Enhanced Town Planning (2019)
Climate change and town planning (2019)
An example of properly low carbon housing (2018)
Garden Cities and Green Evolutionary Settlements (2018)
No more new homes for motorists (2018)
Land, labour and food (2018)
Making planning work differently (2012)
Pedestrian apartheid – RSPCA News (1976)
Research into Housing and Housing Service Systems (1973)

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