Yorkshire Water is to create a state-of-the-art anaerobic digestion plant at its waste water treatment works in Sheffield, the Yorkshire Post can reveal.
When complete, the £23.3m facility will use sludge to generate up to 1.9 megawatts of renewable electricity, enough to power the equivalent of 85,000 domestic fridges.
The green energy will fuel the treatment of domestic and industrial waste from a population of 830,000 people.
Richard Flint, chief executive, said the company views its sewage works sites as places to generate energy rather than simply deal with waste.
“Being able to generate our own electricity from our own renewable sources allows us to take another step forward in the direction of environmental responsibility,” he told the Yorkshire Post.
Yorkshire Water estimates that the plant at Blackburn Meadows will reduce its carbon emissions by the equivalent of 6,500 tonnes, while greenhouse gases will be cut by nearly 30 per cent.
It will also increase the company’s recovery and recycling of phosphorus, which currently ends up in landfill.
“It’s good news from our perspective, but also for customers and the environment,” said a company spokesman.
Water companies are among the biggest energy users in the UK, accounting for two per cent of total usage. Yorkshire Water’s energy bill has trebled over the last decade to £40m a year.
The Bradford-based company is trying to reduce energy costs by generating its own power. It has 30 sites creating energy through renewable sources including wind turbines, hyropower and combined heat and power plants.
The anaerobic digester at Blackburn Meadows will be its largest single site plant when finished in September 2014. It is part of a wider £78m scheme to overhaul the works and treat larger volumes of waste water more efficiently and to a higher standard.
Mr Flint said: “There was a time when the UK was known as the dirty man of Europe because we put [waste] in a pipe and sent it out to the North Sea. The way it is treated now puts us at the forefront of environmental standards in Europe. That is where we should be.”
Yorkshire Water has attracted criticism over of its plans to set up wind turbines at some of its sites.
Mr Flint said: “Clearly it’s a very emotive subject that divides opinion. Some aspects of what we are looking at doing have not been very popular and we recognise that and we are working as closely as we possibly can with local communities.
“The issue we are dealing with here is trying to balance the need of local environmental improvement or securing drinking water supplies but by doing it in the most sustainable way possible.
“If we don’t tackle the issue of climate change, then the issues of supply and volatility in supply will become ever greater in the future.
“It may well be our grandchildren’s problem, but the water sector is a long-term sector.”
He added: “By 2050 it is likely there will be a 40cm rise on the waters around Yorkshire. That creates real risks and challenges.
“You can’t get away from the fact that in 2007 Hull was flooded very badly. Hull is a city below water level, depending on where the tide is.
“As a society, we have to think about how we address those issues and renewable energy has a very significant part to play in making sure we minimise our carbon footprint and also how all think differently about our water.”
Mr Flint said that Yorkshire Water’s biggest challenge is in balancing population growth, climate change and ensuring affordability for customers.
The company estimates that the population of Yorkshire will increase by one million people over the next two decades.
Meanwhile, climate change could lead to longer, drier springs and heavier downpours of rain.
Mr Flint said: “With a million extra people and great volatility in the natural environment, we are going to have to ask ourselves: do we need to think and find our way to a position where we can maintain our quality of life but also use less water?”
Yorkshire Water is tackling these challenges against a shifting regulatory background.
The Government published its white paper on water in December, setting out its vision for the sector including proposals on protecting water resources and reforming the water supply industry.
Mr Flint said he thought the Government was “going in the right direction”, but emphasised the importance of maintaining the confidence of international investors and warned that “without strong financial foundations, everything gets more difficult”.
Increased borrowing costs could lead to bigger bills for users, he suggested.