The rush to renewable power sources should be good news for the waste management industry, providing a route to an almost inexhaustible income from biomass electricity generation.
It’s a technology that’s been proven in small scale operations for years (notably by farms to dispose of their organic waste), and now the concept is now scalable to allow large-scale plants to operate, serving whole municipalities. However, like many new larger projects linked to the waste industry, public suspicion remains a huge issue, meaning that approval for plants is still a considerable hurdle.
Britain creates millions of tonnes of organic and food waste every year. While some is composed after collection, much is part of household general waste and heads to either landfill or energy recovery. The majority, however, comes from industrial production and includes pulp, paper, cotton, sawdust and animal dung.
Energy is extracted from waste products in a process called anaerobic digestion. It’s where organic waste is processed to produce biogas, a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide. Waste products are put into an airtight digester and allowed to decompose. With improved technology, digesters are now creating biogas with a 95% methane content, meaning that there’s less CO2 evolved.
With a near constant supply of waste, “fuel” for biomass digestion is virtually inexhaustible, and waste products can have further use as composts. An added advantage is that technology advances mean that the greater purity of biogas, along with more efficient filtering and cooling of waste gasses means that biomass energy generation is far more environmentally friendly than burning fossil fuels.
The main hurdle for large-scale biomass generation is public acceptance. Large facilities in Southampton have been abandoned at the planning stage in the face of substantial public opposition. People object to large chimneys, industrial-sized facilities, added traffic from waste lorries, and smells from waste handling.
But sensitively planned, and with adequate investment, biomass should be a powerful future energy source. In California – one of the world’s most power-hungry economies – biomass already makes up around 4% of power generated, streets ahead of the UK.
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