Visit to Veolia Energy Recovery Facility, Sheffield – a “rubbish” day out, Chris Thompson writes:

The open day at the Veolia Energy Recovery Facility on the edge of Sheffield city centre, on 27 September 2014, generated enough interest for 14 intrepid YTI members to attend. As tours were limited to groups of 10, we were separated across two tours.

An initial safety briefing was followed by a very informative explanation of what the plant does by an enthusiastic staff member. I’ll skip over the details, but in short, the plant takes non-recyclable waste, burns it, and converts the heat into either district heating for about 140 large and small buildings across Sheffield (including the Grade II listed Park Hill Flats), or electricity which is fed back into the grid. The split varies according to district heating demand. It’s the largest district heating scheme in the UK, but such installations are more common elsewhere in Europe.

After the explanation (and a stack of questions), we donned hard hats, high-vis jackets and safety specs for a guided tour. Unfortunately, as there were no children in the party, we were refused the chance to drive the crane from the control room. Much disappointment all round. The plant can be controlled by just two people, with automatic control of crane operation and emissions monitoring. The latter is very strict indeed, and we were told that they have never had to shut down because emissions exceeded their limits. They’re also obliged by Sheffield Council to hold open days to improve “transparency”, since incinerators (as we used to call them) have a pretty bad reputation from past practices, and are still a burning issue whenever a new one is proposed.

The rest of the tour consisted mainly of pointing and shouting at various bits of engineering that had previously been mentioned when the processes were described. One highlight was peering through the boiler inspection port at the raging inferno within. Noted on the tour was equipment made in Germany, France, Spain and Birmingham, so we can only imagine the translation required for the installation manuals.

Was it smelly? Yes, but not enough to turn anyone ashen-faced. It was noticeably smellier inside the buildings than out – they do a good job of containing any odours.

After we had dumped our safety equipment, around 8 of us wasted no time in transferring to the city centre and Andrews Tea Rooms, where we disposed of tea and cake in short order. Heated discussions ranged from the price of wedding cakes to the utility of the afternoon’s visit. Professionally speaking, “useful but only indirectly” was the general verdict: as an office worker, it’s good to get an idea of the scale and working environment of industrial plants, as well as to collect, perhaps only passively, some of the English terminology used.

So all in all, not such a rubbish day out: time just flue by. Personally, I’d definitely go again to similar events.

More info on what you missed: