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Energy from waste

Of all renewable or low-carbon energy technologies, this is the least glamorous ...


Energy from waste means just that – the taking of waste from our wheelie bins, farmyard slurry or sewage sludge, and generating energy, whether heat, electricity or both, in one of a variety of different ways.

It's not the most glamorous method of producing renewable energy, and many would argue it's not 'renewable' as such, but certain generation methods may be ideal for some communities and an excellent way of disposing of waste.

Incineration

The most commonly thought of method when mentioning waste, is the large-scale incineration of municipal rubbish, the like of which many local authorities already carry out. However, incineration plants can often face a lot of hostility due to the smell and smoke, and local authorities often face difficulties building new plants.

Incineration can bring environmental benefits, however – but only if a) as much recyclable material (glass, metal and plastics) as possible has been removed from the waste before it is incinerated, and b) if the heat produced by the incineration process is either used to generate electricity or to heat a building.

Anaerobic digestion

Anaerobic digestion is very different to incineration. It is the process by which plant or animal matter breaks down, or rots, producing a gas with a high methane content. This rotting takes place in a closed vessel and in a controlled atmosphere, and the methane given off is captured and burned to produce heat, electricity or a combination of the two.

After a while, the rotting process is more or less complete and you are left with a safe, ‘clean’, organic material known as digestate, that can be used as fertiliser or soil conditioner.

Anaerobic digestion technology is widely used by sewage treatment works to generate electricity, and is incredibly popular on the continent in countries such as Germany. There has recently been a rise in interest in the technology amongst farming communities in the UK.

However, anaerobic digestors aren’t cheap – typically a million pounds and over. But they do have the potential to generate income and make cost savings.

Here's an introduction to these two ways of generating energy from waste:

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