Energy from Waste (EfW) is a process where waste is treated to produce energy in the form of electricity and/or heat. It includes incineration and co-incineration, pyrolysis and gasification technologies. EfW is potentially compatible with the Government's Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme which provides financial support to the owners of installations producing useable heat from eligible resources.

The RHI is expected to open for applications on 30 September 2011. Ofgem is holding a consultation on its guidance on the RHI which closes on 5 August (for more information on how to respond to the consultation please click here).

Eligibility for RHI support

The Draft Renewable Heat Incentive Regulations 2011 (the "Regulations") have been published which set out the criteria all installations must meet in order to be eligible to receive RHI payments. Where EfW incineration plants wish to be accredited under the RHI, they must still comply with waste incineration and environmental legislation (i.e. the RHI is a further accreditation rather than an alternative to existing EfW environmental regulation).

Waste as fuel and the RHI

The RHI is intended to support heat from eligible sources – in the case of waste, the eligible source means the portion of waste which is biomass. A recent study by DECC found that more than half of the rubbish households throw away is organic, renewable matter, such as food or paper products. Therefore around half the heat produced by burning municipal waste (or more particularly, solid biomass contained in municipal waste) is renewable heat which would be eligible for support under the RHI. Importantly, in order for municipal waste to qualify for RHI support the waste must contain a minimum of 50% solid biomass.

Ofgem will verify an installation's eligibility for the RHI and the Regulations impose various record-keeping burdens and require the owner to report to Ofgem regarding the fuel used and its source. This information is used by Ofgem to determine the proportion of solid biomass in the waste and collate how sustainable the feedstock is in general.

Is the minimum 50% biomass content target achievable?

It is claimed that more than half the content of municipal waste is organic matter (which would likely be considered biomass under the Regulations). However, it seems as though EfW plants may struggle to meet this requirement in practice.

A recent consultation by the Scottish Government on the proposed Zero Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2011 envisages a far greater degree of sorting of refuse and waste before it reaches landfill or an incinerator.

Part of this separation of waste fractions will likely be at, or before, the point of disposal, where those disposing of waste are encouraged to separate different types of waste. The Zero Waste Regulations prevent municipal waste being used for EfW unless it has first been sorted and treated. Further, any waste used for EfW must be "residual" which SEPA defines as "wastes which have been subject to all reasonably practicable efforts to extract recyclable material prior to incineration or co-incineration".  This planned separation and treatment will lead to high levels of recycling with only untreatable waste fractions ending up in landfill or an incinerator. This new initiative will likely drive down the proportion of solid biomass contained in municipal waste.

Ultimately, while several types of waste will be suitable for RHI payments, they may not be permitted as fuel in Scottish EfW installations under the Zero Waste Regulations proposed by the Scottish Government. Similarly, while certain (residual) waste streams will be permitted as feedstock for in EfW plants, installations will not be able to claim RHI payments where the waste does not qualify under the Regulations.