New faeces: the joules on the dungheap

VEGETABLE matter, dung, rubbish, excrement.

These are just a few of my favourite words, and they're also big in the lexicon of Energy Power Resources, a company dedicated to developing renewable sources of electricity.

EPR believes that where there's muck there's megawatts, and it will leave no heap of waste unturned to prove it. It has just put pen to paper for the development of a 10-megawatt power station in Fife fired by poultry litter and costing pounds 21m (chicken feed - you thought it, I said it); it is close to agreement on a pounds 60m straw-burning plant in Cambridgeshire; and it has planning applications in place for a project which aims to liberate 400,000 tonnes of household rubbish a year from our bins and return it to our homes as power.

If this sounds like a Good Life guide to electricity generation then that massively understates the scale of "green" energy production in this country. When William Law and William King founded EPR in 1994, their inspiration was the concord reached by governments at the 1992 Rio Summit on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and then the target set by the last Conservative administration that 3 per cent of generation capacity should be met through renewable sources. That was a potentially huge market - 1,500 megawatts out of a 50,000 capacity at average periods of demand, or enough to meet the needs of 3 million homes. And the Labour Government has since specified that renewable energy should make up 10 per cent of capacity by the year 2010.

When the two founders started out, however, the project was also an act of faith because there would be no income until the first plant was up and running. In the meantime, while bank debt covered the research costs, it was guaranteed by Mr Law and Mr King, so they were taking all the risks. Payday was a long way off back then because first there'd be the feasibility studies, then EPR would have to bid for contracts in a sort of dungheap beauty parade, and finally it would have to obtain planning consents. David Williams, the chief executive, said the company signed its first contract in December 1995 and won't be seeing any money for another two years.

So will this commitment to research and development pay dividends? Apparently so, because EPR already has seven projects at an advanced stage, and every time the government awards a contract there is a guaranteed income stream. The certainty of a payback has enabled the company to obtain a large amount of new bank debt, and it is also seeking to raise pounds 15m by placing 49 per cent of the shares with institutions.

EPR's plans also suggest we've been missing a trick all these years because it seems there's nothing that can't be burnt to provide sustainable forms of power. Among the waste that could one day be watts are tyres, car fragments such as dashboards, and most intriguing of all, human waste. Mr Williams reassured me that the last of these would not be reclaimed in its undiluted form (the one and only time I had to provide a "stool" specimen, I pondered how I would fit an item of kitchen furniture into a test tube) but taken from the sewers. If the project goes ahead, it will fall to some hapless employee of a water company to extract our excrement and then "mould it into pellets or briquettes". These will not be barbeque briquettes, Mr Williams added, but seeing as outdoor meals are our way of "getting in touch with the wild", what better way of imbuing sausages and chicken legs with that authentic flavour?

Back at the poultry-litter plant in Fife staffing requirements have yet to be finalised, but in the current climate of downsizing it's a safe bet that these will be the only words uttered inside the factory: "Nobody here but us chickens."

Basket cases

IN THE days of privation under communist rule, the citizens of Eastern Europe became resigned to their fate of standing for hours in food queues and going home with very light shopping bags. Now, after the hunger comes the feeding frenzy and Tesco's pounds 1bn investment programme for a string of hypermarkets in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Tesco has ambitious plans in Eastern Europe because of the comparative lack of planning restrictions, and it may well be that it can count on a steady supply of shoppers. Whether it can count on their continuing good temper is another matter, however, because never in the darkest days of food shortages was there anything quite so provocative as the express checkout queue.

In the spirit of detente, therefore, I alert the checkout assistants at Tesco's new hypermarkets to the following danger signs: an old-style Eastern Bloc queue dotted with people who've crammed a month's worth of groceries into a single basket; shoppers stealing furtive glances over each other's shoulders; a gradual reddening of complexions; and finally a chorus of whatever the Polish, Hungarian or Czech is for "Oi! She's got more than eight items", at which point there's a mass brawl. The return of the water cannons? It's just a matter of time.

Tesco might also take heed of a joke recounted by the American writer PJ O'Rourke in his alternative travel guide, Holidays in Hell. The scene is a butcher's shop in Warsaw and a man has queued up for six hours only to be told there's no more meat. He kicks up a fuss until he's calmed down by a chap in a trench coat who says that time was when he'd have been shot for such displays of dissent. So the unlucky queuer returns home disconsolate and his wife asks: "What's the matter? Are they out of meat?" "It's worse than that," says the man, "they're out of bullets."

Moorgate to Tibet

SO THE Great Eastern railway company is taking outsourcing to its natural conclusion and recruiting passengers to be part-time guards. Astonishing, isn't it? Who'd have thought in this day and age that a train operator would still be employing people?

There's no such excesses on the West Anglia Great Northern line between the City of London and Hertfordshire, where all signs of human life vanished years ago, along with all forms of information for bewildered commuters.

WAGN, as any City worker who uses this route will tell you, runs services to Hertford, Letchworth or Welwyn Garden City from two platforms at the London terminus of Moorgate. The station's departure boards flash up the ultimate destinations of each train but don't tell you which stations they will be stopping at along the way, and this is a crucial omission because some trains will pass straight through your stop. The only way to make sure you won't disembark miles from home is to look at a timetable stuck to the walls, but this can also be difficult because there's usually 10 other commuters in front of you bearing the same puzzled expression. And to add to the confusion there's no clock on either platform, so if you haven't got a watch you won't know how long you have to wait before the train departs.

All this is fine if you want to re-enact the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, but not so handy if you have more mundane ambitions such as getting home before it's time to set off for work again.

So may I suggest to WAGN that it recruits commuter-guards dedicated to answering questions like: "I want to go to Alexandra Park, can you put me off?" ("Yes, the funfair's finished and the pubs are shut.")

Until then this is Bunhill, for the Independent on Sunday, Tibet.

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