Muck to Brass - Connecting London's food waste and energy

The newly appointed deputy mayor of London for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues (@sabrodrigues61), has a lot on her plate. But with the responsibility for both energy and environment comes the potential for key initiatives that could help address both these areas as one. Specifically in the area of food, or rather food waste.

Food waste constitutes 20% of all London’s waste and amounts to almost a million tonnes of food waste every year and the costs of disposal of this waste is a staggering £50 million. Up to half of this could be avoided, but there are of course constraints. Food waste recovery is more difficult in densely populated areas like London. 

However, much of this waste represents a resource rather than a cost. Of this total approx. 400,000 tonnes could be processed in AD (anaerobic digestion) plants, and the use of food waste for energy generation through AD plants is now a well-established and proven technology. Indeed if all this material could be used for energy production it would generate something like 20 MWs of electricity; and unlike other alternative sources AD still operates when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. 

At present, almost half of the waste food which is recovered is sent out of the Greater London area for processing, sometimes over considerable distances, generating lots of additional CO2 in the process. In addition a lot of food waste is not recoverable because it is co-contaminated with other waste – plastic, paper etc.  Proper separation of food waste can be resource intensive; initially at least whilst collection systems are established and user habits are being changed through promotional programmes. It is often this initial and ongoing resource requirement which blocks many food waste plans getting off the ground.

By contrast the demand side for food waste is in good shape.  There are AD plants operating successfully in London and more could be added with support from GLA. These plants are hungry for more food waste. David Cohen (@cohenstandard) has written an excellent article on the subject in the Evening Standard which highlights Lodon’s latent capacity to handle more food waste.

So what about the energy side of Ms Rodrigues portfolio? The GLA is about to begin  a major new energy project.  Licence Lite seeks, in effect, to set up the GLA as London’s newest electricity and power operation. This proposal, which has made  its way through Ofgem would allow small local electricity generators in London to sell their power through the LL operation  to major London based consumers (TfL, Metropolitan Police etc.) at prices which could increase their electricity sales revenues by  up to 20% when  compared with wholesale prices  achieved by these small generators selling the same electricity through traditional routes to the existing electricity supply market.

This system makes a lot of sense. It provides a strong commercial incentive (not a grant!) to small electricity generators who almost all use renewable energy technology (wind, solar, AD etc.). At the same time it reduces the level of fossil fuel used by London’s major electricity users. So, the more energy that can be used directly in a circular economy fashion within London the better all round.

There is one specific proposal that the deputy mayor could consider that would bring together GLAs activities in waste food recovery and LL. At present alternative energy generators in London sell the bulk of their electricity to the mainstream electricity supply market. LL has the potential to offer a better deal with prices as much  as  20% above those available through existing routes. In time the price differential available by selling through LL could  increase further as LL secures greater volumes on the supply side, expands its  own customer base and matches the volumes and generating profiles of its generators with the consumption patterns of the LL customers with increasing accuracy.

There’s a virtuous circle that could be established here. 

Less food waste to export (land fill) means reduced cost for London Boroughs, and more resources available to promote food waste recovery

Local sourcing of food waste for London AD plants means reduced cost and improved productivity

More local power from AD plants sold to Licence Lite means better financial returns that can be returned to local Boroughs to promote better food waste recovery.

London cleans its plate and Licence Lite cleans up as a new energy provider in London.

Over to you Ms Rodrigues!