London Blog

Open House Visit: SELCHP Energy Recovery Facility

As regular readers will know, this weekend was Open House Weekend, the annual event in which upwards of 700 buildings around London open their doors to the public. First on my list to visit was the SELCHP Energy Recovery Facility in New Cross.

A bit of background. SELCHP (South East London Combined Heat and Power) was commissioned in 1994, eight years after the boroughs of Lewisham, Southwark and Greenwich came together to look for solutions to the dual problems of landfill: scarcity and environmental concerns. It is a major incineration plant, processing 420,000 tonnes of household waste a year, and generating enough electricity to entirely cover its own needs as well as feeding the excess back into the National Grid. As well as electricity production, ferrous metals are removed for recycling, all residues are cleaned before release into the air or disposal to a hazardous waste site and the ash residue left after combustion is reprocessed for road building and construction.

The residue after combustion, to be sent to construction.

The plant itself had been opened for the day and visitors were free to walk around a clearly marked trail with staff on hand at a dozen or so points to talk about what was happening. Despite being so early in the morning, there was a good crowd and after being greeted by the Millwall Lion mascot and collecting our safety helmets and protective goggles, we were led inside. The first thing you notice is that everything is absolutely enormous.

Although Open House is a one off day for public entry, the facility does a lot of education work: permanent explanatory signs and displays are scattered throughout the plant:

For all its modern environmental technologies, some aspects of waste disposal remain traditional: here a toy-catching Claw is undergoing regular safety checks before being returned to action:

The water treatment room, producing the steam to turn the turbines:

The control room, with CCTV across the entire plant, dozens of screens displaying the current state of the systems and a huge window overlooking the piles of raw waste, from which you can operate the claw. Despite the multi-layers of thick glass separating this room from the waste, there’s still a strong smell of rubbish: it’s not so strong as to be unbearable, but I imagine it’s one of the downsides of working in this facility.

The boiler room. Big beyond all description, this room is where the combustion takes place. Refuse is dropped down these chutes into the furnace where it burns at more than 850 degrees. The heat energy is released into a multi pass boiler where 76 tonnes per hour of steam is produced at 395 degrees and 46 bar.

Towards the end of the tour are the Residue Conveyors: the residue from the combustion travels through this giant vibrating machine, separating out oversized fragments while the electromagnetic pulls out recyclable metals. Little anecdote here: the plant used to fish out coins, which are one of the most common items seen in household waste, and send them back to the Royal Mint, but this became uneconomical and they are no longer removed.

The final stop: the bottom ash. This is the residue left after combustion: the mass of the original waste reduced by 70% and the volume by 90%. This remainder is sent to an external site for further removal of ferrous and non-ferrous metals (aluminium, copper and brass are common) before the remainder is reprocessed for construction.

All in all, probably the most interesting Open House visit I’ve ever been on – definitely recommended for both adults and children. Outside occasional open day, school and university tours are bookable on request.

SELCHP Energy Recovery Facility is based at Landmann Way, Surrey Canal Road, London SE14 5RS. Visit for more information


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