LONDON — Fish heads and chicken fat are being turned into electricity by Britain’s largest retailers including Wal-Mart Stores that ship food waste to power plants to reduce garbage-removal fees.
Tesco, Britain’s biggest supermarket chain, along with Marks & Spencer Group, John Lewis Partnership’s Waitrose, William Morrison Supermarkets and J Sainsbury are testing how meat and fish, cooking oils and leftover sandwiches can lower energy bills and landfill costs when they’re transported to plants for converting into power.
Companies around the world have invested about $18.2 billion in waste-to-energy assets in the past five years, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Waste Management, North America’s biggest trash hauler, purchased stakes in eight companies developing systems to convert rubbish into electricity, fuel and chemicals. In Brazil, cities are building incinerators that burn trash to produce electricity.
Bioenergy can provide at least 8 percent of Britain’s demand by 2020, valued at about $13 billion at today’s oil prices, the government forecasts. Supermarkets are motivated by a landfill tax that makes it increasingly costly to bury waste. The tax starting in April was 64 pounds ($98) a ton and is set to increase by 8 pounds a year.
“Diverting food waste from landfill to anaerobic digestion is a no-brainer for the supermarkets — landfill charges and energy costs are only getting more expensive,” said Niamh McSherry, a food retail analyst at Berenberg Bank.
Anaerobic digestion breaks down organic material in the absence of oxygen to make a biogas that can be burned to generate power. Electricity from this process currently costs about $142.80 a megawatt-hour, according to data from the London-based researcher Bloomberg New Energy Finance. This compares to coal-fired power that costs $78 a megawatt-hour.
Developers of bioenergy plants set to benefit from the emerging industry include Kedco , Enviroparks, GWE Biogas and Biffa Group, which is processing Sainsbury’s waste for the next two years, and Biogen Ltd., which already processes food from Waitrose stores.
Waste-to-power projects in Britain benefit from state subsidies under the government’s Renewable Obligation program that requires utilities to buy increasing amounts of electricity from clean energy sources.
Renewable Obligation Certificates are awarded to generators of renewable power with one being issued for every megawatt-hour produced. Utilities are required to hold increasing amounts of ROCs or pay a penalty and different technologies receive different numbers of ROCs. Anaerobic digestion is currently eligible for two.
Refineries and airlines also are pioneering energy-from- garbage projects. Neste Oil is making diesel for cars and trucks using fat from gutting pangasius, an Asian catfish. Airlines including Air France-KLM Group and Deutsche Lufthansa have started flying planes on used cooking oil.
Wal-Mart’s Asda unit sends old lamb chops to moldy bread to bioenergy sites. About 2,500 homes are powered by Sainsbury’s unsold meals and rotting vegetables. Waitrose chickens are kept warm in solar huts as Tesco examines how fat from rotisseries can produce electricity.
Waitrose sends all “unavoidable” food waste, packaged or unpackaged, raw or cooked, to anaerobic digestion facilities to make biogas used to generate power for the National Grid.
Tesco is saving 200 million pounds on its energy bills every year through low carbon and energy-efficient technologies introduced since 2006. Marks & Spencer saved more than 70 million pounds last year. Asda expects to save about 800 million pounds by 2020 by implementing energy-saving measures.
Morrison’s, as part of its plan for zero waste to go to landfills by 2013, sends trash to bioenergy plants. Marks & Spencer sends 89 percent of its food waste, including salads and sandwiches, to similar facilities as it strives to become carbon-neutral in Britain and Ireland this year.
“Anaerobic digestion saves the food retailers money and allows them to demonstrate their ‘green credentials’ to the government and consumers,” McSherry said in London.
The DECC estimates that anaerobic digestion facilities and plants using wood chips, food waste and agricultural residues to produce heat and power could account for 8 percent to 11 percent of Britain’s primary energy demand within eight years.
Sainsbury’s, Britain’s third-largest supermarket after Tesco and Asda, in February invested in Tamar Energy, which plans to build 40 plants within five years that will use waste to generate electricity. The business is backed by financier Jacob Rothschild’s RIT Capital Partners investment trust and the Duchy of Cornwall estate held by Prince Charles, heir to Britain’s throne.
Anaerobic digestion is not the only renewable energy source that food retailers are using to chop bills and cut emissions as Britain seeks to get 15 percent of its energy from clean sources by 2020.
Sainsbury’s, trying to reduce emissions by 30 percent by 2020, has installed about 7 megawatts of solar panels on its stores, which combined is probably larger than any single solar farm in Britain, said Neil Sachdev, property director for the retailer, by email. One store also uses geothermal power.
Both Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer also source electricity directly from renewable energy generators including land-based wind farms, biomass facilities and hydropower. Sainsbury’s currently gets more than 4 percent from renewables, with plans to boost this past 10 percent by 2013.
Waitrose in March opened a store on the Isle of Wight powered by wood chips. It is seeking to install as many as 150 similar energy centers by 2020 and plans to open its second in Bracknell this month. Wind turbines and solar panels already provide heat and light for chicken huts at its Leckford Estate in Hampshire. Sainsbury’s sends all bread waste for processing into animal feed.
Tesco, seeking to cut store emissions in half by 2020 from 2006 levels, is testing the potential of clean-energy technologies such as sun-powered lights in parking lots at six zero-carbon stores in Britain, Ireland, Thailand and the Czech Republic. Many of its stores now use energy-saving lights.
“A modern brand is a sustainable brand,” said Lucy Neville Rolfe, executive director in corporate and legal affairs at Tesco. “Reducing energy tends to save money.”
Morrison’s said it opened its “greenest” store last October in Peterborough. The store is testing solar panels, more efficient lighting and air-source pumps that use outside oxygen for heating.
“Reducing energy consumption and sustainably managing waste is just good business,” Bob Gordon, head of environment at the British Retail Consortium, said. “U.K. retailers are saving literally hundreds of millions of pounds per year through their sustainability agendas.”