The more the council grows capacity at the Poolbeg waste-to-energy incinerator, the less people will recycle, independent Councillor Mannix Flynn said at the May meeting of the council’s environment committee.
“The great fear is that this capacity to burn waste will just continue infinitum,” he says.
Dublin City Council – which owns the plant along with the private company Covanta – intends to apply to An Bord Pleanála for permission to burn an extra 90,000 tonnes of waste each year, said James Nolan, a council senior executive officer.
If this proposed increase is approved, it would mean raising the incinerator’s capacity by 15 percent, from a diet of 600,000 tonnes of waste to one of 690,000 tonnes.
On 5 May, most councillors on the environment committee agreed with Flynn’s motion calling on the council to withdraw its application, saying they had concerns about the expansion.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said the council will apply to increase capacity. “Waste to Energy is widely recognized as a technology that can help mitigate climate change.”
Incinerated waste doesn’t generate methane, as it would if it was sent to landfill, metals are recycled and the “electricity generated offsets the greenhouse gases that would otherwise have been generated from fossil fuels”, they said.
At the meeting, councillors also debated whether or not bedding down a district heating system that draws on energy from the incinerator would also lead to calls for more capacity and undermine efforts to recycle.
Incinerate or Recycle?
Robert Moss, green communities programme manager with an Taisce, pointed to a recent Channel 4 investigation, which found that in areas in the UK that have a waste-to-energy facility, recycling rates were a lot lower than other areas.
“Because these incinerators cannibalise the materials,” said Moss at the meeting.
Sally Starbuck, an environmental architect and member of the environment committee, said when the authorities build new roads the total number of cars on the road increases. Likewise, “if you expand a waste facility it will fill up”, she said.
The key question that needs to be answered, Moss says, is what checks and balances exist to ensure that the waste being incinerated at Poolbeg isn’t dry recyclable waste.
However, Nolan, a senior executive officer at the council, said at the meeting that the city is already producing more regular waste than the incinerator can take.
At the moment the excess waste that can’t be handled by the incinerator either goes to landfill or is exported, he said.
Green Party Councillor Claire Byrne said that the need to increase the capacity at the Poolbeg incinerator means that Dublin is “failing on the basics of reduce, reuse, recycle and repurpose”.
In his motion, Flynn said that, among other measures, that the council should instead focus on “a major emphasis on education programmes on recycling”.
One problem, though, says Moss of An Taisce, is that Ireland doesn’t have recycling facilities so it exports recyclable material, and we don’t know where it ends up.
Fine Gael Councillor Naoise Ó Muirí opposed Flynn’s motion. The council has a right to apply for more capacity and the regulatory body will rule on that issue, he said.
It’s “good to have the capacity in reserve if the city needs it in the future”, he said.
Dublin City Council hopes to harness heat from the Poolbeg incinerator for a district heating scheme to warm at least 10,000 homes and 1 million square metres of commercial space in the city, according a recent council report.
The plan is to dig about 7.3 km of trenches and fill them with water pipes connecting the heat source (the incinerator) with the radiators in homes, shops and offices, the report says. The project is expected to take five years to install and commission, it says.
And this might be just the beginning. Codema, Dublin’s Energy Agency says 75 percent of the city is suitable for district heating, and there are enough heat sources to cover double the heat demand of the city, the report says.
District heating systems “offer advantages in terms of higher energy efficiencies and reduced consumption of energy resources”, it says. The schemes can reduce carbon dioxide and save money, it says.
Flynn, the independent councillor, opposes the plans for district heating run from the Poolbeg plant. It will further incentivise the owners of the plant to burn more rubbish “to keep the generators going and keep their profits going”, he says.
“There is a moral and ethical issue that you are burning waste,” said Flynn. That is an issue both for the councillors who opposed the plant and for householders who want to use the heating from it, he says.
Joe McCarthy, a former local resident and campaigner against the incinerator, says that when it was built 900 metres from his home, he sold up and moved to Greystones because he was worried about its impact on the environment and people’s health.
The business case for district heating in Ireland is poor because people don’t require heating year round and homes are better insulated nowadays, says McCarthy. “The amount of heat required by a household is relatively low.”
A previous pilot project for district heating was unsuccessful because the metering of the heat was complicated and the methodology was not accepted by the residents, says McCarthy.
He wonders in the district-heating project Dublin City Council is now proposing, how much Covanta wants to sell the heat for, and if it would be commercially viable, he says.
The council report on the project says the plan is to develop the district heating system through a joint venture with a private company, with capital costs estimated at €73 million.
Of that, €43 million would come from a loan the council would take out, €20 million from a grant from the government’s Climate Action Fund grant, and €10 million would come from an investment from the private partner.
The procurement process for bringing in the joint-venture partner is due to start in the third quarter of this year, the report says.
For the Time Being
Robert Moss, the Green Communities Programme Manager at An Taisce, says Ireland is emitting more carbon dioxide per person from heating compared with other European countries because a lot of the buildings here aren’t well insulated.
Capturing heat from existing power stations to use for central heating could at least lower those emissions, he says. “I think district heating is a good idea.”
Ideally, in the future, the district heating could run from a renewable source such as geothermal energy, he says.
“For the time being we are creating all of this waste energy,” he says. “For as long as we have incinerators and power stations we might as well use the waste energy created.”
At the environment committee’s meeting on 5 May, councillors opposed the expansion of capacity at Poolbeg, but most were not against the district-heating project.
Green Party Councillor Michael Pidgeon, who chairs the committee, said he agreed with the principle of the motion but he doesn’t oppose using the plant for district heating.
“If the incinerator is there and there’s a renewable use to be made from it, with district heating, then that is worth doing,” says Pidgeon. “But obviously there are difficulties with the whole model.”