Local power for local people: the company giving back to its customers

A pioneering project in Northampton could change the way we power communities in the UK. Rolton Kilbride aims to construct small-scale, local power plants using waste as a fuel to provide electricity to local heavy energy users such as hospitals and factories, as well as giving the community cheaper energy. Can this concept be rolled out across the UK?


Northampton Rolton Kilbride

Rolton Group and Kilbride Infrastructure have launched a collaboration to use their respective skills for energy production. The combination of consulting engineering business and developer of infrastructure projects is beginning to take shape in the form of energy from waste power stations directly linked to heavy energy users by private wire. In its newest venture the company plans to not only provide electricity to businesses, but to provide cheaper electricity and heat to homes local to its power stations.

At the launch of the company at the House of Commons in November 2015, Rolton Kilbride director Peter Rolton said: "We will develop local embedded power stations that are fuelled on refuse derived fuel and directly connected to industry or communities." Although Rolton Kilbride has two energy from waste power stations further along the planning process, the first of these to invest profit back into the community will be in Northampton, where Rolton grew up.

Baking not burning: how does it work?

The energy centre will create electricity using advanced conversion technology (ATC), otherwise known as gasification. This process involves heating waste in a vessel with minimal oxygen to produce a gas which can be used as fuel for electricity production. The heat created in this 'baking process' can also be harnessed. A common by-product of this process is fly ash, often used in construction for tarmac.

The waste used in the gasification process is diverted from landfill. "We ask local authorities to give us the waste post recycling, which is about 30-40% of the authority's total waste," says Rolton. "We can take it off their hands for £50 a tonne less in gate fee than what they are currently paying for landfill."

Putting theory into practice in the centre of Northampton

One of Rolton Kilbride's central values is in placing its energy centres close to where the electricity is needed. Its project in Castle Bromwich will be located next to the factory it will eventually serve and the Northampton project is no different.

In November 2015 the company agreed a two-year lease option for the site of the Westbridge Depot, located within the Northampton enterprise zone and close to the town centre. This puts the energy centre within reach of a raft of potential private customers such as Northampton University, the Churches and Carlsberg factories and Northampton General Hospital.

The similarities with other ACT projects end here. "The twist is, in Northampton we are going to put the power and heat from the plant over the fence into a community interest energy company," says Rolton. "It is called Caring Community Energy."

Chair of Caring Community Energy (CCE) and ex-MP for Northampton South Brian Binley says: "This unit will produce about 27MWe, which takes it down to 22MWe for usage. That is crudely around one sixth of Northampton's power usage so it's a sizeable contribution."

The electricity will be sold to CCE at the same wholesale rate as it would otherwise be sold to the National Grid. CCE will then sell the energy on at just below the market rate to local heavy energy users via private wire.

As well as dealing with the electricity created by the energy centre, CCE is working with Rolton Kilbride to analyse where the 10MWth of residual heat generated by the baking of waste could be pumped directly into local homes suffering from fuel poverty at a cheaper rate. The companies are currently undertaking a study of where this would be beneficial and say they are actively seeking public opinion on the matter.

Binley says that all profit made from the sale of power from the energy centre will be reinvested in the local community, adding: "We will use the excess income to bring those houses up to spec in terms of double glazing and insulation, in order than the heat can be used by the people who live in them most advantageously."

The benefits don't stop at cheaper fuel bills for residents. Based on the £50 a tonne saving Peter Rolton says Rolton Kilbride can offer local authorities it works with, the scheme in Northampton could save up to £8m a year by diverting the 200,000 tonnes of waste it currently puts into landfill to the energy centre. Rolton Kilbride will then put the waste through the gasification process, creating 27MWe base load. This is enough to power 40,000 homes.

Is it as green as they say it is?

"It will remove the incentive for the local councils to increase recycling"

The project has its critics, who accuse the energy centre of not being as green as it appears. "Let's be clear, this is an incinerator. It will remove the incentive for the local councils to increase recycling, and for a zero waste policy," says Northampton Green Party spokesperson Tony Clarke.

"The process will create toxic emissions, dioxides and furans and is being proposed in a residential area of Northampton which already has the worst air quality standard in the town. Lorry movements in our view will increase and we feel the whole plan is being passed off as green energy and the community being promised cash and cheap energy incentives, which are hiding true impact this incinerator plan could have on the town's environment and future green potential.

When challenged on the emissions issue, Rolton conceded that "there is C02 coming out of the flue stack, but if we are using the heat in the surrounding houses then we are turning off a whole raft of gas boilers. The emissions conversation isn't just about additionality, it's about swapping out."

On the other hand, the project has some prominent supporters. "The project has the potential to really benefit the town", professor of sustainable waste management at University of Northampton, Margaret Bates, told the Northampton Echo. "Nothing in life is without risk, but the fact gasification creates heat that we can use makes it more efficient than traditional incineration and the emissions are cleaner."

Developing the UK energy from waste sector

One inspiring project is a good thing, but if this technology could be rolled out across the UK, we could be seeing an energy revolution in the near future. We're not there yet, though. "The energy from waste sector in the UK is underdeveloped compared to the rest of Europe," says REA senior policy analyst Frank Gordon. "At the moment a lot of our waste still goes to landfill whereas across Europe far higher rates are used in energy from waste plants like the one proposed in Northampton."

"The estimated cost of the Northampton plant is £160m"

There are a number of further barriers to the expansion of local gasification projects. The estimated cost of the Northampton plant is £160m, something which may preclude government and local authorities from directly investing. In that case, "the funding for a place like that is only going to come from one place, and that is the private sector" says Rolton.

Gordon explains that current energy policy won't help attract investment at a time when government cutbacks are reducing funding. "Policy uncertainty is hampering the industry as we move from the certainty of the Renewables Obligation to the replacement Contracts for Difference (CfD) scheme, for which projects must apply for a contract through an auction, the date of which is not yet known".

This isn't to say that the current government is not interested in the potential of this technology. Andrea Leadsom, Minister of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change and Conservative MP for Northamptonshire South, visited Rolton Kilbride in December 2015 to hear more about the project and spoke on the matter in the House of Commons in January this year.
"I think this is a very good model for a large part of the country that has a waste disposal problem of this kind," says former MP Brian Binley. "I am in conversation with ex-colleagues who want to do this in other parts of the country".

It isn't all bad news. Gasification technology is establishing itself in the UK market with examples from Europe showing it can be done. The REA estimates there are 50 ACT projects at various stages of the planning process currently. The charm of the Rolton Kilbride project is the community interest company that comes with it. If this can be shown to provide real benefit to local residents, there may be hope that the other 49 projects will set up a similar structure to benefit their localities.