Is the net environmental gain of alternative fuel production being overlooked?

Is the net environmental gain of alternative fuel production being overlooked?

The production of alternative fuels – such as RDF and SRF – is attracting an increasing amount of global attention, as more and more offtakers begin to acknowledge the environmental, resource security and cost benefits of this EfW process. But beyond the hype, how many operators are truly thinking about the real environmental gain of these energy sources?

Our MD, Marcus Brew, recently offered his thoughts to The Energy from Waste Network. If you missed the original article, catch up here…

There was a time when the production of energy sources such as Solid Recovered Fuel (SRF) was something considered only by market leaders – those with vast budgets to invest or a particularly transparent environmental agenda to drive.

But as the benefits of these fuels have gradually become more widely understood, the market has opened up, with more EfW facilities now coming online, all over the world.

Alongside this industry evolution, it perhaps comes as no surprise that the fuel manufacturing process itself has not stood still. Operators are – quite rightly – demanding more from their alternative fuel production technology. But, should their criteria be more stringent still? Because, in some instances, is the net environmental gain of alternative fuel production being overlooked?

Evolving criteria for alternative fuel production technology

In the beginning, throughput was a primary consideration when commissioning alternative fuel production plants, and understandably so. It was seen as the answer to any investment payback – surely more product yield would mean greater ROI. Over time, operators developed more sophisticated throughput demands, caring less about simply the speed of a machine, but the true overall capacity of a plant once features such as foreign object protection mechanisms and low maintenance regimes had been considered.

Then quality appeared on the radar, with operators expecting SRF shredding systems to deliver fuel on time and to the required specification. The more defined the fuel in terms of particle homogeneity and calorific value, the greater the burn efficiency and the more attractive the output product as an energy source.

Flexibility even became important – could the alternative fuel production line handle more than one type of input material for instance, according to the changing market/supply and demand? Could various output requirements be satisfied? And, if so, could the machine reconfiguration process be as quick and easy as possible to minimise downtime that – in the bluntest of terms – costs money?

What about the environment?

It is great to see machinery providers and industry operators working together to drive this ongoing process and the ever-smarter production of fuels such as SRF. But to what extent could technological innovations enable waste handlers to further enrich the environmental efficacy of their operations?

In striving to uphold the principles of the circular economy, it is important to find ways to ‘design out’ waste at every stage in the loop. With this in mind, energy consumption within alternative fuel production facilities should form part of that equation. Plants should be designed so that they are as lean, ‘green’ and profitable as possible.

By designing plants and investing in modern equipment that reduce electricity consumption, for example, fuel producers can lessen the parasitic load of their operations. And this opportunity to maximise their net environmental gain is incredibly important. Harnessing the future resource potential of ‘waste’ materials and converting them into a fossil fuel substitute is one thing, but the true value of the EfW activity is absolutely undermined if the manufacturing process is energy-hungry – from both a carbon impact and fuel consumption cost perspective.

Reducing the energy consumption of SRF shredding

There are a number of ways to drive down the energy consumption of an SRF shredding line and boost the environmental gain in the process.

Firstly, it is now possible to manufacture SRF in a single pass – many people refer to this process as ‘quick SRF’. Utilising only a sole piece of technology – without there being any detrimental impact on the quality of the output fuel – reduces the initial capital investment, as well as ongoing energy and investment costs.

The switch from diesel- to electricity-driven technology will also help to improve the net environmental effectiveness of the SRF production line, with energy consumption proven to fall by up to 50% when making this switch. Not only does this have a large bottom line benefit – if circa £50-60,000 savings can be achieved per annum – but it should lower insurance premiums too given the reduced fire risk.

UK-based Lancashire Waste Recycling, for example, has recently halved plant wear costs and reduced energy costs by 40% by investing in more sophisticated SRF shredding technology, manufactured with environmental and cost efficiencies in mind.

Then there’s the environmental advantages associated with more effective material liberation that facilitates the segregation of a higher volume of valuable recyclates that can be extracted and reinserted into the supply chain. For example, one UK organisation – Crapper & Sons – is shredding to produce an on-specification biomass fuel. By switching to a sophisticated single pass line, they’re benefitting from 20% more uptime and they’ve boosted their metal recycling performance in the process, which enables them to generate £3000 of revenue per week from the resale of this material.

Environmental and cost savings

It goes without saying that reduced energy consumption will make a difference to both the operator’s sustainability agenda, and that of the wider nation. And there are so many examples of where it can also reduce fuel costs and/or boost recycling rates, in turn improving operators’ production margins and of course, profitability too.

There should be no shame in striving to maximise the margins from SRF manufacturing – in fact, opportunity to drive commercial improvements, at the same time as reducing environmental impact, should be seen as the ultimate goal.

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