Environment secretary Caroline Spelman has pitched herself against government policy on energy-from-waste (EfW) plants by halting a planning process for such a plant in Kings Lynn, Norfolk.
At the same time, DECC, in its new consultation on the Renewables Obligation, is ignoring advice from its own consultants that EfW should receive no financial support and is instead proposing plants receive half a ROC of subsidy per megawatt generated.
Spelman took the unprecedented step yesterday of withholding £169 million of PFI credits from Norfolk County Council's project at Saddlebow, near King’s Lynn, saying that she wanted more information about environmental impacts, the council's waste strategy and a greater consensus that the plan should proceed amongst the local population.
The Conservative-controlled council has reacted with fury, accusing her of causing "chaos".
Bill Borrett, its cabinet member for environment and waste, said: "After years of carefully following the criteria laid down, this apparent late moving of the goalposts has surprised and dismayed us.
"Worse, we are concerned it may lose Norfolk people as a whole a government grant worth a staggering ￡169m."
In fact, a statement said they were expecting "in the region of £500 million over 25 years".
The project is already suspended pending a High Court hearing on 5 December, brought by opponents, to determine whether it should be subject to a full Judicial Review.
The winning bid for the plant's construction, out of ten initial submissions, was from a consortium of Cory and American energy-from-waste specialist Wheelabrator.
Apart from domestic waste, the proposed plant would also process commercial waste that would otherwise go to landfill.
In her letter to the council, Spelman gives as the reason for her decision that she is not satisfied that its waste management strategy has popular support.
At the public enquiry stage, a record 2,592 responses were received, of which 2,524 (97.4%) objected to the incinerator and 27 (1%) supported it.
93 parish and town councils also responded, of which 61 (65.6%) were opposed and nine (9.7%) in favour.
Spelman's stance is supported by two local Tory MPs, Elizabeth Truss, and Henry Bellingham.
Bellingham and Kings Lynn Borough Council recently held a referendum on the topic in which 93% (65,000) voted against the proposal for economic, environmental and health reasons.
Government waste policy is currently weighted in favour of incineration and uses PFI credits to support projects.
They have been allocated to 32 waste treatment plants (mostly, but not all, incinerators), and, although called credits, they do not have to be repaid, making them effectively grants.
The PFI credit for the proposed incinerator at King’s Lynn is worth about £40 per tonne.
A government paper on EfW published in July notes that PFI credits worth £2.48 billion have been committed to 37 waste projects.
There are additional projects in the application process, for which it is expected a further £0.8 billion PFI credits will be awarded.
Norfolk Council also stands to benefit from landfill tax avoidance of £56 per tonne, rising by £8 per tonne for each of the next three years and an average of £110 per tonne over the incinerator's 25 year life.
Then there would be the income from a gate fee of an estimated ￡77/tonne and from the expected power generation from the Combined Heat and Power plant of 22MW of electricity and 20.4MW of heat, some of which will be used by a paper mill next door.
DECC has received evidence from consultants Arup that EfW should receive no financial support from Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs), but is choosing to ignore it.
In its latest consultation on proposals for the levels of banded support under the Renewables Obligation for 2013-17, published yesterday, it says that it is rejecting this advice on the grounds of supporting renewable energy and jobs, because EfW plants have high initial capital costs.
It is proposing that the support goes from the current 1 ROC, (costing ￡8.7m per year from 2016/17 onwards) to 0.5 ROCs.
It also expresses hope that the level of renewable electricity generation capacity from energy from waste CHP could reach around 60-70MW by 2020, and around 100-130MW by 2030.
"This level of deployment could potentially generate in the region of 0.3-0.4TWh/y of renewable electricity by 2020 rising to around 0.6-0.8TWh/y in 2030," they say.
Critics say that such a policy locks the UK into an unsustainable route, and that such energy is not truly renewable.
By halting the council's plans in Norfolk, it looks as though Spelman sides with these critics against DECC.
The dilemma experienced by Norfolk is being felt in many cash-strapped councils around the country: if there is cash for EfW - why shouldn't they accept it?
410,000 tonnes of municipal rubbish is produced in Norfolk every year and the county has a recycling rate of 43%.
The incinerator would need 170,000 tonnes of waste every year for 25 years.
The Council calculates that after incineration of 170,000 tonnes, there is sufficient margin left of the 410,000 tonnes total to meet recycling targets.
But the waste hierarchy that is key to the Waste Review prioritises reduction, re-use and recycling, and it is likely that in the future ways of reducing the level of absolute rubbish will be found, making it hard to meet the national appetite for burnable waste should many of these plants be built.
Waste destroyed in an incinerator will be replaced, requiring new raw materials, manufacture, transport and packaging.
By contrast, reduction, reuse and recycling represent a win-win strategy. A number of cities in Europe have already achieved high levels (over 60%) of diversion of waste.
Moreover, Defra’s own paper on The Economics of Waste Policy states that it is desirable that "waste is allocated to the various management options such that the social marginal cost of each option is equalised".
This is far from the case at the moment.
The social marginal cost includes the health and environmental cost of the plants.
The Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2007 Updated October 2009 Version 2.0, lays out the monitoring and reporting criteria to operate a waste incineration facility.
It requires continuous monitoring of emissions to air but not of heavy metal, dioxin and furan emissions, which are only regulated by spot checks once or twice per year for six to eight hours, under the Waste Incineration Directive.
Norfolk County Council has stated that "technology in today‘s modern energy from waste plants stops the formation of dioxins".
But the proposed plant does not use the latest technology which reduces dioxin production.
Opponents cite a 2008 dioxin breach from the Dundee incinerator, which they say illustrates how even a ‘modern’ energy from waste plant can still release dioxins over 100 times the legal limit.
Residents are also worried about smell, particulates (PM10 and PM2.5), and low level ozone.
The County Council has alleged that the incinerator would produce around 1/900th of such emissions compared to other sources like traffic.
But this statistic is a national average, not a local observation.
Nationally, municipal EfW incinerators make a small contribution to the UK's total emissions because there aren't many of them.
And even the Environment Agency has identified bottom ash as potentially hazardous, which cannot be disposed of casually.
It seems that Spelman has found a way to make herself popular and support health and the environment.
But the prospects for energy-from-waste look entirely unclear.