The government is under legal obligation to make 15% of energy produced renewable by 2020. For many people, wind and solar are the forms of renewable energy that spring to mind. It is not so widely known that producing energy from incinerating waste is also a renewable form of energy, one which produces half the amount of renewable energy currently generated in the UK.
Unlike solar or wind power, both popularly conceived of as ‘clean’ means of generating energy – even if people may oppose, for example, having a wind turbine or farm in their locality for other reasons – waste to energy plants are highly contentious. In general, the idea of incinerating waste is met with opposition and mistrust. People are wary about ‘dirty’ pollutants caused by combustion of waste, and suspicious of local authorities whom they think may divert collected household recyclables from recycling plants to waste incineration plants, under a smokescreen of sustainability.
Producing energy from municipal waste provides a solution to two pressing problems; increasing landfill tax charges and methane gas produced as a consequence of waste decomposition in landfill. By diverting waste from landfill local authorities are able to save money. In essence, biomass energy from municipal waste makes use of waste as a saleable resource from which money can be made, rather than costly taxes incurred.
When rubbish is landfilled we have effectively given up attempting to extract any further resource from it. However, the landfilled rubbish will continue to have a detrimental effect. As it decomposes it will emit methane gas which is a potent greenhouse gas.
Incinerating garbage that would otherwise be landfilled maximises its inherent resource value. To convert waste to energy forms a logical part of the waste hierarchy – reduce, reuse, recycle, recover, disposal – for which it deserves wider acceptance among the environmental community. As long as it doesn’t occur to the detriment of recycling (higher up the waste hierarchy) biomass from waste makes sense economically. It also makes sense politically, because the UK produces enough of its own reliably replenishable garbage.
Stringent regulations exist to ensure plants do not emit toxic pollutants into the atmosphere while combusting waste, more so than in any modern fossil fuel burning plant. In fact, so strict are the rules about emitting harmful gases, ‘that many times more dioxin is now released from home fireplaces and backyard barbecues than from incineration’. Yet despite such evidence to the contrary, these plants are still considered ‘dirty’. This is especially unfair, considering that waste to energy plants offer a solution to the expensive and escalating problem of municipal waste.
In Amsterdam the public tram system and street lighting is powered by incinerating the city’s garbage. I especially like how a public resource (we all contribute to producing waste, after all) is converted into electricity that is used to power a public service. If waste incineration plants in the UK were seen to have some public benefit, like in Amsterdam, the public would be more receptive to the idea of them being built in their localities.
Are you for or against burning our organic rubbish (if reusables and recyclables have been extracted)?
Digest of a presentation by a member of the consumer insights team, Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to the Youth Advisory Panel (YAP), London, 5th May 2011
As a member of YAP 2011 I’m privileged to have access to DECC departments’ work to shape and implement new policy ideas. Over the next twelve months I’ll be attending regular meetings with the panel and invited guest speakers, discovering more about the current direction of UK energy policy.
In addition to attending monthly events, I’ll be gaining insight into specific policy areas by collaborating on research projects with fellow panel members. One area I’ll be exploring is the work of DECC’s consumer insights team whose role is to handle public consultation about new policy ideas and advise government on effective implementation strategies. I’m especially interested to learn about the scope of the consumer insights team’s influence and the processes they employ to conduct public consultations.
Whereas the previous administration ploughed money into public advertising campaigns such as Change For Life in a bid to influence public behaviour, the coalition takes a comparatively backseat approach. In contrast to Labour’s big government involvement in everyday life through advertising, it invests resources into PR campaigns, opting to eschew public advertising campaigns. One way the consumer insights team works to ensure good PR for policies is by holding focus groups to determine public receptiveness. In doing so they gain insight into how best to pitch policy ideas.
A member of the team shared a case study about domestic carbon trading, which became an abandoned policy idea due to intense public opposition during the focus group stage. I was intrigued to learn about this behind the scenes process, which serves as a kind of filtering process for potential policy ideas. The abandoned idea was that people could trade their personal carbon allowances among each other; thereby establishing a parallel market where the commodity bargained and exchanged is carbon credits, rather than cash.
However, the public reacted very negatively to the idea. People rejected it as they were distrustful of carbon credits being equitably traded, and feared that a black market in carbon could emerge.
The outcome of the consultation led the previous administration to shelve this ambitious idea. To discover that radical policy ideas can be abandoned in this manner
got me wondering about whether carbon-reducing policies necessarily tend to encounter a lot of public opposition, especially if they are geared toward changing behaviours such as driving.
I can imagine that upon occasion the government finds itself in an impossible bind. Administrations may wish to implement meaningful change, however, they may find their ambitions thwarted by unreceptive focus groups, faithful to the status quo. While I most certainly wouldn’t have liked to see the domestic carbon trading scheme implemented, I suspect that there could be perfectly viable yet abandoned policy ideas out there which although potentially effective at reducing emissions, will never see the light of day.
While I am glad that the age of government advertising campaigns has passed, as I personally didn’t feel like I needed patronising instruction, I am curious to see how the PR route will work for ensuring successful take up of new policy ideas. The PR focus suggests behind the scenes effort to communicate and float policy ideas in targeted ways to ensure their public support; I only hope these ideas pose the best solutions for climate action, and aren’t merely easy vote winners.
Digest of presentation on the roll out of SMART meters by SMART meters team, Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to the DECC YAP (Youth Advisory Panel), London, 5th May 2011
The Mass roll out of SMART meters begins in 2014 when householders across the UK will be encouraged by energy providers to switch to next generation meters which enable people to monitor and manage their domestic energy consumption. Unlike traditional meters, SMART meters provide insight into how much energy is being used at any given time and by which appliances in the home. Large amounts of data will be collected on energy use to enable providers to refine their pricing structures to offer flexible and innovative tariffs to consumers.
Savvy customers will be able to consume energy Ryan Air-style, in effect, getting energy bargains when purchasing off- peak. So in theory, people who already pay less for running the dishwasher at night will save even more once SMART meters are established. Households with SMART meters will receive more accurate bills as they will be charged for what they have actually used, and not by inaccurate estimates which are based on records past meter readings.
One of the reasons the SMART meters team is excited about the switch is that it will give consumers greater awareness of how much energy is being used, which could lead people to adopt more energy-conscious and money-saving habits. If you think about it, the present system doesn’t facilitate people to be in touch with the energy they consume. I have no idea it costs to charge my phone or to leave my appliances on standby, and plus, when I pay for such seemingly trivial energy use, it’s in a totally disconnected manner, either up front, in arrears, or inclusive with my rent.
The SMART meters will be installed by energy providers and the cost of installation will be factored into billing and paid off over time. If a householder moves, the cost of paying off the SMART meter will be charged to the bill of the new tenant. By roll out completion in 2019, DECC estimates that 50 million meters will have been installed in 97% of homes. Despite the initial cost of installation those who choose to adopt the new meters will initially save £23 per year on their energy bill (a saving commitment that’s enshrined into the deal with energy companies).
My personal view is that DECC has set an ambitious target for the roll out which may not be achievable in such a short time frame. Many people will be wary of data being collected about the energy they consume in the privacy of their own homes, and may not be tempted to forgo their misgivings for initially inconsequential savings. The SMART meters team gave firm assurances that there would be checks and balances on how the collected data is to be shared, however, if the roll out were handled insensitively a negative press campaign could result in public distrust of the meters and opposition to them.
Generally speaking, the DECC Youth Advisory Panel fully support any innovation that could lead to more effective energy management and less wastage. At a time when energy is becoming more expensive it’s especially good that people will be able to make savings on their energy bills by adopting SMART meters. It will be an added bonus if the meters succeed in building a connection between consumers and the energy they use.
As a member of the DECC Youth Advisory Panel I wish to thank the SMART meters team for explaining the department’s work to create a policy framework for roll out in 2014.
Would you be willing to change your energy consumption habits to save money? Do you think a SMART meter will encourage you to be more involved in the energy you consume at home?