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Waste to Watts

Teesside Waste to Energy Power Station at Have...

Teesside Waste to Energy Power Station at Haverton Hill near Billingham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the UK there have been regular plans to build waste incinerators which have always failed because locals near where they were planned always made the same arguments “what if they burn something hazardous”  “the smell will be unbearable” and so on.  Often it seems to be just a case of “not in my back yard” a phrase that afflicts so many development plans in our country.  Though in the past many incinerators in this country haven’t had the best record for cleanliness.

Such plants were generally only for waste disposal but in northern mainland Europe they think differently about their waste.

As Gizmodo reports Norway’s capital, Oslo, has a waste problem – they don’t have enough.  Half of the city’s population is powered and warmed by rubbish.  In the area there are 400 waste-to-energy plants converting household waste, industrial scrap and even medical waste into power.  Northern Europe produces about 150 millions tonnes of burnable waste to feed plants that were built to take 700 million tonnes and now they’re looking to import waste from other countries – the UK for example exports about 1,000 tonnes annually.

The plants operate in a similar way to fossil fuel power stations: burning fuel to heat water into steam to drive turbines and they’re between 14 to 28 percent electrically efficient but they also use the waste gasses to heat water and then condense the fumes to produce biogas used in metro busses.  What remains is ash and some remaining gas, contaminants and toxins tend to be destroyed in the process.

The system clearly works yet were still cramming more and more waste into landfills.  Our local councils’ recycling schemes help with reducing the level of dumped waste but actually using the waste as a resource instead of something to be buried, out of sight, out of mind until the area is eventually redeveloped into a combined recreation area/ticking time bomb of methane-fuelled fury would be even better.  There are waste-to-energy plants in this country, such as the one pictured above, but really we need to get behind this concept on a wider scale.

But again we come up against the nimbys who want power plants to be out of sight, out of mind too, preferably large, fossil fuelled, pollution spewing and far, far away, in someone else’s back yard.  The thing is that many smaller plants, although costly in setup, could eventually reap benefits for us all – cheaper electricity, cheaper heating and less trash heaps.

We’re demanding more and more power but we’re not willing to pay the price financially or in terms of our urban landscape.  Designers can make even the most industrial of buildings look attractive so the argument against the plants comes back to the idea that “they’re burning dirty waste near my home” – but as the Oslo example shows that argument is becoming, well, rubbish.