Oxfordshire town sees human waste used to heat homes

The Didcot plant The sewage is cleaned before it is turned into useful biomethane

Householders in Didcot have become the first in the UK to use gas made from their own human waste and supplied via the national grid to heat their homes.

Up to 200 Oxfordshire homes will be using biomethane made from sewage they had flushed away three weeks earlier.

British Gas, Thames Water and Scotia Gas Networks now hope to roll out the process across the UK.

According to an EU directive, by 2020 the UK must ensure 15% of the energy it produces comes from renewable sources.

Martin Orrill, head of energy, technology and innovation at British Gas told the BBC News website supplying this type of gas through the national grid was a logical step in the UK's bid to meet these targets.

He added that customers had no need to feel squeamish but should be proud of taking part in the unusual recycling effort.

"They will not notice any difference as the renewable energy source has no odour, and the infrastructure to deliver the gas is already in place," he said.

The whole process should take about 23 days from flush to finish.

The practice of using anaerobic digesters - carefully managed bacteria - to turn faeces into a means of generating electricity is already well established across the country.

Process

But the additional plant that British Gas has installed at the Thames Water sewage treatment works in Didcot cleans up the spare biogas that is produced and turns it into biomethane suitable for household hobs and in gas central heating.

Mother-of-two Kathryn Rushton, 45, is among the householders whose gas supply now comes from sewage.

She said: "I told my children about it and at first they wrinkled their noses but then they thought it was a great idea.

Start Quote

I told my children about it and at first they wrinkled their noses but then they thought it was a great idea”

End Quote Kathryn Rushton Didcot resident

"It's made from something we all produce and it's renewable. We're struggling to find sources of energy so we should use whatever we can. I'm definitely a supporter of this."

Other energy firms including United Utilities and Ecotricity have also announced their plans to inject biomethane straight into the network at a later date.

United Utilities told the BBC it hoped its £4.3m scheme, which would cater for 500 homes in Manchester, would be in place by summer 2011.

Mr Orrill said this £2.5m project had been hastened by the prospect of renewable heat incentives - a Labour proposal that was intended to encourage suppliers to support renewable technologies by rewarding them.

'Historic day'

He said the UK was renowned for having the "best gas grid in the world" and so was ideally suited to try out the technology.

John Morea, chief executive of Scotia Gas Networks, said the project involved "recycling at its very best" and the gas would be cleaned to the highest standards.

In a statement, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne commended the project and said: "This is an historic day for the companies involved, for energy from waste technologies, and for progress to increase the amount of renewable energy in the UK.

Poo power

  • The average person produces 30kg sewage (once dried) per year that could be used for producing gas.
  • The UK produces 1.73 million tonnes of sewage sludge every year, which could potentially be used to produce biogas.
  • Hypothetically, if all of the UK's 9,600 sewage treatment facilities in the UK were fitted with this type of technology, they could provide enough renewable gas for up to 350,000 homes.

Source: Thames Water

Last month Mr Huhne told MPs, that in the rush to put together a coalition deal between his party - the Lib Dems - and the Conservatives in May, he and Conservative Oliver Letwin "forgot" to include a reference to the incentives but said that it would be "an absolutely essential part" of meeting the government's renewable energy targets.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change told the BBC the government was still committed to meeting its energy targets but the details of the incentive proposals were under review.

"Clearly there are benefits to the scheme, but we must also consider the impact of the cost, particularly given the financial constraints we must work within and the potential impact that funding options could have on vulnerable people," she said.

But Mr Orrill remained optimistic. He said: "We're nervous but confident that the government will make the right decision.

"If they don't, then the demonstration process may have been for nothing and they would have missed an opportunity for the UK to make renewable gas on a commercial basis."

Thames Water's chief executive Martin Baggs agreed and said: "Every sewage works in Britain is a potential source of local renewable gas waiting to be put to use."

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