For the past half-century, the western world has been searching for an energy elixir, some cure-all power source that can carry us past fossil fuels, and along the way we’ve eagerly consumed our share of snake oil — cold fusion, hydrogen cells, wind, solar, ethanol — some were mirages; “energy sources of the future” that have been and always will be energy sources of the future, while others overpromised and underdelivered, and some didn’t even make it through the pipe-dream stage of development. Countless sums of money have been poured into developing these potential sources of energy, and while the intent behind these projects is laudable, the results certainly haven’t been.
That said, the failures of the past shouldn’t and hasn’t stopped brave entrepreneurs from investing in new energy technology. Take, for example, UK renewable energy/waste management company Viridor, which has managed to take a seemingly limitless resource — human-generated waste — and turned it into a reliable source of energy. There are several methods used to create energy from waste, one being Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT), which uses large, air-tight waste recepticles that allow microorganisms to break the waste down into methane, which is then captured and can be used in specialized power plants. Another method is to simply use the waste itself as fuel, by burning it in large incinerators. Using these methods, Viridor plans to expand their waste-to-energy business by opening four new power plants in the UK, boosting their generation capacity from 136MW up to more than 300MW by 2016.
The strikingly simple and brilliant business model of combining a waste collection company with a waste-to-energy business has profits up, and investors reacting positively. Viridor CEO Colin Drummond recently criticized the UK’s reliance on wind power, predicting that if the trend towards wind power continues, the country could be headed for an energy crisis. On the other hand, Drummond is optimistic about waste-to-energy as a source of power: “The fact that nearly half our profits now come from recycling and recovering energy from waste shows that the business continues to transform itself in line with the UK’s recycling and resource efficiency agenda.” It’s difficult to argue with a man whose company boasted a 14% growth in profits from last year, up to £62.9 million, especially when compared to the over £1 Billion a year in subsidies the UK is pouring into wind power.
While Viridor represents a waste-to-energy success story, the stigma associated with waste-to-energy power could prove to be a roadblock for future projects. One of Viridor’s own incinerator projects faces a challenge in Ardley, UK, where activist group “Ardley Against The Incinerator” claims the incinerator will lower air quality and reduce housing prices, among other issues.
The organization has brought a legal challenge to the 25 year contract the county signed with Viridor, which will be settled in court on July 7/8th of this year. The group’s concerns aren’t entirely unfounded either, as the incinerator would essentially be burning garbage; a reality that could be very difficult to stomach for communities faced with an incinerator in their back yard.
Could a time be coming when waste starts being taken seriously as a legitimate energy source? It’s cheap, plentiful and easy to access, and even comes with the added benefit of reducing landfill space. However, there are realities that could be difficult to overcome, especially in the eyes of the public. One thing’s for certain: if companies such as Viridor continue to prosper, waste-to-energy fuel will be very difficult to ignore.