A future-proofed energy recovery plant for north London

Heidi Vella 9 November 2020 (Last Updated November 6th, 2020 15:09)

As part of its ‘Green Recovery’ plan, a UK waste authority is building a state-of-the-art £683m heat and power project that will serve 127,000 homes, divert 700,000 tonnes of waste from landfill, and provide local jobs. We caught up with programme director David Cullen.

A future-proofed energy recovery plant for north London
A mock-up of The North London Heat and Power Project (NLHPP) facility and eco-park to be completed in 2026.  Credit: NLWA

The North London Waste Authority (NLWA), a public body that manages waste for seven London boroughs in the north of the city, is currently building what it says will be one of the cleanest energy-from-waste plants.

The North London Heat and Power Project facility will replace a 50-year old plant and be built using technology such as equipment for controlling nitrogen oxides, as well as using proven filters for capturing particulates, including ultrafine particles. In a first for the borough of Enfield, it will also provide district heating to a nearby new housing development and, to boost recycling rates, an EcoPark that will house a public reuse and recycling centre. The plant is currently at the tendering stage and is expected to be completed by 2026.

Heidi Vella (HV): Why did the NLWA decide to build this facility and how does it differ to the existing plant?

David Cullen (DC): The existing facility was never intended to operate for as long as it has, it is now reaching the end of its service life as it’s become increasingly expensive to maintain and operate. The new facility is based on the same principle technology, in that waste is incinerated to generate heat, which runs the thermodynamic cycle – a process that powers all power stations.

But, of course, it has the benefit of 50 years of improved technology to make it more efficient in its creation of heat, and also much more efficient in its emissions control. This is due to the equipment for controlling nitrogen oxides, and filters for capturing particulates, including ultrafine particles. But the real big difference for this project is it will provide district heating, which makes its energy output much more efficient.

HV: How will the district heating element of the project work?

DC: Enfield Council is building a new housing development on a large brownfield site nearby, so we will essentially have a captive customer. It’s pretty much adjacent to the facility.

The way it works technically is, we will generate the steam that drives the turbine. Some of that steam will be taken off and piped through the EcoPark to a building, which is being constructed by Energetik, and then through heat exchangers. The heat network takes ownership of that heat and they distribute it through their district heating network. So, the heat network is our customer.

I think the future of energy recovery from waste has to go hand-in-hand, from a climate change perspective, with district heating. Through the replacement of domestic gas boilers, by using district heating, there is a considerable greenhouse gas saving at the consumer end of around 90%. There’s also a great social benefit in providing district heating to affordable and social housing.

HV: Have you considered investing in carbon capture storage technologies to reduce emissions further?

DC: Unfortunately, the technology is not sufficiently well advanced to abate carbon emissions. I mean, we’re already achieving quite a significant reduction in greenhouse gases by avoidance of landfill. Just to put it in context, the waste industry is responsible for about 3% of the UK greenhouse gas emissions. And the vast majority of that is due to landfill. So, the emissions from energy recovery on a UK scale, never-mind the global scale, are extremely small.

Having said that, we will be looking very closely at the technology as it develops in carbon capture and storage, but it’s really only at prototype testing level at the moment. The government is just starting to develop some initial concept programmes about where carbon capture technology could be deployed. I think we will see the first, I hope anyway, commercial scale schemes in Europe coming on-stream during the life of our facility. Maybe in the 2030s. I think anything before that is a bit optimistic. But Norway and the Netherlands are probably ahead of us in developing that.

HV: How is progress going with construction?

DC: The project is being built primarily in four phases. [The first is] site preparation works, which involves several smaller civil engineering contracts and is an opportunity for local SMEs to get involved. This will get everything ready for the big build. The next phase is building the EcoPark. Then we will start the third phase, which is to build the energy recovery facility. The existing energy-from-waste facility on site is still operating, so everything has to be constructed in a very rigorous and regimented manner.

At the moment, we’ve just started the contract for the second phase – EcoPark South – and that’s been awarded to Taylor Woodrow. We’ve also started the formal procurement for the energy recovery facility. So, we’re at the pre-qualification stage at the moment. Eventually, the two facilities will run side-by-side for a relatively short, we hope, period, whilst the new facility is proven in operation.

HV: The project is publicly funded instead of privately financed, did that make it harder to get the development greenlighted?

DC: Before my time on this project, there was a previous incarnation of it that was private financing. The private finance route has been quite a common avenue that local authorities use. But for this project it was deemed unaffordable and so the authority made the brave decision to self-deliver, as they determined it would be better value for the taxpayer. They have been right behind the project. The other greenlight we had to achieve was to get the development consent order because it’s a nationally significant infrastructure project. There’s a whole process to go through but that planning process went very well.

I think the operator, London Energy Limited, will get the revenues from the power and heat generation but the operator is also wholly owned by the authority, so there’s no profit making. Any revenues are primarily to reduce the cost of waste management for the North London boroughs. We’re not a profit-making organisation.

HV: This is a very locally centred project, why is that important?

DC: We have developed a vision for the project; which is to deliver value for the taxpayers. We’re a model for public sector project delivery. We will deliver a project in which the community will take pride. We’ve set ourselves quite a high bar when it comes to being a good project and benefiting the community. And so, for me, the social value agenda is a tremendous challenge, not a difficulty so much.

We think that we are being more innovative and pushing the envelope, to use the cliché, to be a good project. [We’re doing this] by creating apprenticeships; helping people who are long-term unemployed with pre-employment skills; training people who might want to work in the construction industry; being STEM ambassadors in schools, and running programmes around environmental management, climate change, waste management, and so on. It’s quite an ambitious programme for reaching back into the community.

HV: Do you hope other authorities will look at the project and replicate the public model?

DC: I think we can demonstrate that the public sector is capable of delivering projects of this complexity and magnitude efficiently. That is not to say, of course, that we are not using our private sector partners, our consultants, advisors, contractors, but we can demonstrate that we can all work together under the oversight and management of a public sector organisation. We can collaborate and deliver these projects efficiently, using best practice and current thinking about working collaboratively and focusing on successful outcomes for everyone involved.

It is a genuinely exciting project and because we’re a public sector organisation, we have the freedom, but also the challenge, to do things right. We’re able to prioritise social value and benefits to the local communities. I think this is a project North London should be really, really proud of.