Oil on troubled waters...


Ian Collins is managing director of REG Bio-Power whose subsidiary, Living Fuels, has pioneered a new technique to convert used cooking oil into combined heat and power (CHP). After substantial growth and investment, the UK biofuels industry now faces a challenge in providing a UK legislative framework to protect its future. Here, Collins tells Food and Drink Network UK why energy from waste could calm the waters of the UK renewable energy industry…

Looking through the average household kitchen cupboard, it’s astonishing to read how many food products contain some form of cooking oil.If a food product doesn’t contain cooking oil, there’s a high likelihood that it’s been used in the production process.The question we’re most interested in, however, is what happens to the oil after it’s been used.

The Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP) estimates that the UK produces 8.3 million tonnes of food waste each year including around 250,000 tonnes of used cooking oil. Disposing of this waste costs the food production sector millions.

Figures showed that the total world consumption of major vegetable oils in 2007 and 2008 was 128 million tonnes. On a global level, it’s easy to see how this form of waste is causing a major problem – both environmentally and commercially. Our mission is to turn this valuable waste stream into a useful commodity – energy – providing a home for used cooking oil and helping food producers to be more sustainable in the process.

Although electricity generated from renewable sources has more than doubled in the last five years*, figures show that we lag far behind the rest of Europe in terms of renewable energy take up – a fact that needs to change.The energy from waste sector is a suitable remedy to this problem with technologies such as anaerobic digestion, biomass and bioliquids leading the way in power generation.

To take REG Bio-Power as an example, we work with commercial partners and local authorities to produce our proprietary biofuel, LF100, with UCO collected from over 260 civic amenity sites and numerous large scale waste producers.In turn, we’re able to offer a fully sustainable process,recovering a waste product and re-supplying it as a green energy and heat source for the company involved.

Apart from proving the potential of energy from waste, this shows that the UK has an appetite for companies using innovative methods to produce energy – an encouraging sign.And it’s easy to see why – under the European Landfill Directive, diverting waste from landfill is a keystone of environmental compliance and, as many organisations now account for corporate social responsibility on their balance sheet, managing waste in a more sustainable way now has an added financial incentive.

It is important to stress that recycling UCO is nothing new; many industrial producers are using waste oil to fuel their fleet of vehicles with bio-diesel. While this is better than sending the waste to landfill, the benefits of using that same oil to produce combined heat and power can far outweigh the benefits involved with use for transport – both environmentally and in energy efficiency and financial terms.

A recent government report** compares the two uses: “it can be seen that the highest absolute savings in total GHG emissions can be achieved by using UCO in a CHP unit to displace heat generated from fuel oil and electricity from the grid.” Financially, a company that heats and powers its own buildings using a biofuel will see cost savings while ethically, it will be way ahead of the curve. REG Bio-Power already has CHP operations embedded on a number of clients’ sites.

Many large scale food producers are increasingly treating their waste output as an asset, rather than a by-product of their core business.Because of this, the way waste is managed is fast becoming part of a company’s overall reputation – if you operate in a sustainable, ethical and environmentally responsible way, you’ll begin to see the benefits on your bottom line.

With the announcement in April this year that the Carbon Reduction Commitment is now mandatory for many large organisations, managing waste streams and offesting carbon by procuring renewable energy is also an easy way for companies to comply with legislation.In terms of meeting European targets, we’re currently working with UK Government officials and Department for Energy and Climate Change to reach a decision on grandfathering, whereby a legislative framework is put in place to allow the industry to continue to thrive.

At a national level, it’s clear that something needs to be done to combat both our waste and energy problems – creating one from the other seems to be a natural remedy.Fuels being used within emerging technologies, like LF100, all form part of the solution to these problems.We just need to realise their potential at this early stage to ensure that the energy from waste industry continues to innovate.

  • UK Low Carbon Transition Plan July 2009

**Comparison of the Greenhouse Gas Benefits Resulting from Use of Vegetable Oils for Electricity, Heat, Transport and Industrial Purposes – North Energy Associates Limited, Study funded by DECC