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University of East Anglia’s Biomess

December 4, 2015
tags: ,

By Paul Homewood 


h/t Dave Ward




The University of East Anglia’s involvement in the Norwich straw burning biomass project, which is on the verge of going bust, is not their first foray into such projects.

In 2009, they launched their own wood chip plant on campus. This has not exactly been a rousing success, as the Norwich Radical website relates:



‘Generation Park’ is a proposal to build a biomass incinerator in the heart of Norwich which is being fronted by Professor Trevor Davies, of UEA. This isn’t the first biomass development Prof. Davies has been involved in.  In 2009 he was the leading light in a project to construct a wood-burning incinerator that would provide power and heat for the UEA itself.

In assessing the suitability of the Generation Park proposals for Norwich, it might be instructive to know how successful or otherwise Prof. Davies’ biomass plant at UEA has been.

  • The plant cost £10M to build including a £1M DEFRA subsidy, and was designed to make UEA self-sufficient in power and heat.
  • After spending five years trying to get the wood-burner to work it has now completely failed and has had to be converted to natural gas.
  • During this time, the burner produced toxic ash that was deposited on the campus, at one point causing the Environment Agency to intervene.
  • Over the period the wood-burner was in operation, 2009-2013, emissions of CO2 actually went up. No figures are available for 2014. This increase is the more remarkable, given that the wood-burner was never working at anything near full capacity.



(UEA biomass plant © geograph)


  • The performance of the wood-burner was so inadequate that, during the winter of 2013/14, significant amounts of electricity had to be purchased from the national grid to ‘keep the lights on’.
  • The overall inefficiency of this installation when burning wood is highlighted by the fact that the conversion to natural gas has resulted in a five times increase in energy output.
  • Perhaps most worryingly of all, UEA themselves, and Prof. Davies in particular, have provided no information on the ultimate failure of their biomass experiment.  Indeed, UEA’s website still proudly proclaims it a success.
  • UEA’s environmental report for 2014 has not yet appeared, and there is talk of a culture of secrecy and denial surrounding the incinerator. This looks, from the outside very much like an attempt to cover up their embarrassment and avoid the inevitably negative implications for the Generation Park proposals.

Based on the evidence from UEA’s wood-burning experiment, biomass incineration would seem to be an unreliable, inefficient and potentially dangerous way of trying to produce energy. And yet Prof. Davies now wants to apply the same approach for the whole of Norwich.

Scaling up failure can only mean a bigger biomess.


The UEA plant was a biomass gasification one, a process that has been damned in a report by biofuel experts, Biomass Gasification & Pyrolyis, published earlier this year.


The report findings state:


Biomass and waste gasification and pyrolysis are being heavily promoted by the UK government. According to the UK Bioenergy Strategy 2012, developing advanced gasification technologies, especially biomass gasification, is vital to achieving low-carbon targets in different sectors. The government has made particularly generous subsidies available for electricity from biomass and waste gasification and pyrolysis………….

Biomass gasification is not a new technology. It was discovered in the 18th century and there were attempts to develop it for ‘town gas’ in the 19th century. It was used to drive hundreds of thousands of cars in Europe during World War 2 (although not without technical and health and safety problems) and it has been promoted for heat and electricity in many countries since the 1970s. Despite this long history, biomass gasification technologies remain beset with technical difficulties and a very high failure rate. This is particularly the case for biomass gasifiers designed to supply electricity rather than steam for heating or cooling only. Some biomass gasifiers have been generating electricity for several years but these tend to be ones involving either collaborations between companies and research institutes or collaborations between companies with different types of expertise. Success appears to depend on companies being able and willing to invest in overcoming technical problems and upgrading plants over long periods. Such plants are expensive to build, expensive to operate and prone to far greater problems than conventional biomass plants. At best they offer just minor efficiency gains, with the worst being less efficient than most conventional plants……….

In the UK, however, the recently built gasifiers and two new ones which have received sufficient investment to be built, as well as most of the currently proposed gasifiers, do not involve producing and using any clean syngas at all. They involve burning dirty gas to power a steam turbine, in particularly inefficient plants. These developments consequently make no meaningful contribution to any technology developments worldwide and, like other biomass gasifiers, are beset with key technical challenges. These challenges are mostly due to the highly explosive gases involved and the fouling and corrosion of key plant components.

This report examines individual biomass gasifier developments and most of the companies involved. The first biomass gasifier ever built in the UK remains the most ambitious project yet. The company set up to build it went into liquidation in 2002. A peer-reviewed study was subsequently conducted about the project. The authors found that a lack of effective scrutiny and oversight contributed to the failure of it and that the offer of deployment-related subsidies (i.e. renewable electricity subsidies paid per unit of electricity generated) may have led to poor technology choices. The lessons from this project’s failure have not been learned. Subsidies for electricity generation coupled with deregulation or ‘barrier removal’ are cornerstones of the UK government’s strategy for supporting ‘energy innovation’ in general. The experience with biomass gasification and pyrolysis plants suggests that this policy approach has had entirely unintended consequences

Rather than driving ‘technology innovation’, it has driven a proliferation of small companies many of them sharing the same directors and none of them with any track record in designing and operating such complex and challenging technologies. Failed gasifier schemes have led to tens of millions of pounds of investors’ money being lost. For example, two company directors, David Pike and David Nairn, have been directors of companies directly responsible for two failed biomass gasification schemes, which lost investors a total of £50 million. They were also behind another ultimately unsuccessful biomass gasifier venture which was taken over by another company that subsequently went into liquidation.

Remarkably, the companies associated with these same directors, despite the disastrous track records of their gasifier ventures, have been greatly boosted by the Green Investment Bank, which recently joined a consortium building a waste wood gasifier in Tyeseley, Birmingham. The consortium has chosen a main developer with directors linked to three failed biomass gasifiers, and on top of this has chosen a Canadian company, Nexterra, to deliver the key technology. Nexterra has built three biomass gasification power plants to date, and not a single one has been successful. One was closed after three accidents described as ‘potentially lethal’ by a spokesperson of the university where it was installed, another failed soon after it opened, and commissioning of the third has so far been delayed by over a year. Furthermore, if this new gasifier is to succeed, it will be less than 21% efficient – far below what many conventional biomass plants achieve.

The key losers of the government’s unsuccessful policy of promoting biomass gasification and pyrolysis have primarily been investors, including investors participating in the government’s subsidised Enterprise Investment Scheme. Health and safety and air emissions risks associated with both technologies have also put local residents at a particularly high risk, one even greater than living close to conventional biomass plants. Fires, explosions and excessive pollution have been associated with biomass gasifiers and pyrolysis pilot plants outside the UK and, in Scotland, a waste gasifier was responsible for hundreds of air quality permit breaches, a fire and an explosion.


The UEA have serious questions to answer.





The link to the Biomass Gasification Report is here;

  1. December 4, 2015 2:01 pm

    Perhaps they should fuel it with their fraudulent papers on man-caused climate change produced by their Climate Research Unit (CRU–or Motley CRU as I refer to them). Or, they might consider a biomass bypass and just run it on their hot air.

  2. December 4, 2015 2:20 pm

    the biomass report link is broke – can you replace it?

  3. December 4, 2015 2:46 pm

    Reblogged this on WeatherAction News.

  4. MikeW permalink
    December 4, 2015 3:01 pm

    Returning to a wood-burning economy is a sign of regress, not progress.

  5. December 4, 2015 3:37 pm

    Producing electricity and heat is something best left to professional engineers, not amateur greenies like Davies.

    • catweazle666 permalink
      December 4, 2015 8:53 pm

      A few years ago, one of those “renewables” dimwits asserted that it was no good asking the opinion of engineers about their projects, because they were invariably negative, and if they had to wait for the engineers to come up with solutions they would never get anything done.

      Says it all, that.

  6. December 4, 2015 4:01 pm

    I bet that useless project used EU grants – i.e our stolen taxes and surcharges. Hell, what a mess the green scenario is.

  7. Joe Public permalink
    December 4, 2015 4:29 pm

    This is the sort of story a half-decent local newspaper should be investigating and publicising the incompetence. Particularly as there are multiple local elements involved.

    • Dave Ward permalink
      December 4, 2015 7:40 pm

      @ Joe – Unfortunately Norwich doesn’t have a “Half-decent local newspaper”, or even a quarter decent one. Both the local rags are part of the Archant group, along with the East Anglian Daily Times – which Paul managed to get an article in a year or so back. Clearly that stirred things up somewhat, and it’s obvious that they will only allow so much “scepticism”, lest their chums at the UEA get upset… Whatever they claim on the website about comments not being moderated, my second attempt at putting the record straight in a ridiculously biased article this week was simply vanished. And that was after three consecutive trolling posts accusing me (and other “deniers”) of being mentally unstable.

  8. December 4, 2015 5:13 pm

    So, wood and straw were no good – perhaps they could convert it to run on coal? – they could make “coal gas” (as well as a load of other useful byproducts)
    Seems ashame to waste a good gasification plant
    how about illuminating the campus with gas lamps or gas fridges?
    the mind boggles at the possibilities

    • Dave Ward permalink
      December 4, 2015 8:00 pm

      “The mind boggles at the possibilities”

      In a previous life, myself and several colleagues used to maintain the payphones on the UEA campus. One day we started finding “fake” blank coins in the cash boxes. IIRC it was discovered that some enterprising wag in the workshops had found a length of metal bar which was close enough in density to mimic a 2 pence coin, and regularly fool the simple checking mechanisms of the day. Evidently a fair amount of time was being wasted turning out these fake coins, just to get free local calls…

  9. Jack Dawkins permalink
    December 4, 2015 6:20 pm

    If they want a biomass plant, why not use coal or gas? After all, they are biomass – if very old biomass. And while they’re at it, perhaps they should consider where the CO2 released by burning biomass came from in the first place.

    Just a thought.

    • December 4, 2015 8:49 pm

      I’ve posed the same thing to some of the wizards. Masses of huge, now extinct clubmoss and horsetail relatives stood in giant corn-rows sucking in the CO2 during the Carboniferous. As they had no secondary growth, i.e. wood, any type of storm would topple them into the swamp and the whole thing would start over. Maybe we need to tout how special it is to be gazing on and using something as wonderful as these fossil trees.

      It was not until Devonian that life in the oceans had pumped out enough atmospheric gases (mis-named as ‘greenhouse gases’) to allow plants and then animals to “crawl” onto the land. Prior to that, there was not enough atmospheric gases (pollution to the environmentalists) to keep them from being instantly fried by UV.

  10. ScottyMorePower permalink
    December 4, 2015 6:36 pm

    Burning wood deforested Europe once, so London switched to coal. Now Europe is again running short of wood for these project, so they’re buying wood from the U.S. I wonder how many such projects are ignoring the fuel burned by their wood-hauling ships when they do their emissions calculations.

    • AndyG55 permalink
      December 5, 2015 1:50 am

      And the energy used and CO2 emitted during harvesting and pelletising !!

  11. John F. Hultquist permalink
    December 4, 2015 7:15 pm

    There are many “biomass” facilities making a contribution to electricity generation. A facility has to make sense in a local setting where the fuel is a by-product of a larger entity. A list of some sites in Washington State can be found at this Link.
    Scroll to below the chart and find this title:
    ” The plants that make up the total thermal generation are: ”

    One is listed as Longview Fibre (described as a manufacturer of craft paper, corrugated boxes and container board). Info at this Link.

    I know of one study that looked at a so called co-generation facility that would have been un-affiliated with any entity – that is, it would have been stand-alone with forest thinning and otherwise non-usable tree parts being trucked to the site. It was not long-term feasable.

  12. Don Keiller permalink
    December 4, 2015 10:30 pm

    Well I’m really all bust up to hear this.
    What a shame.

  13. December 5, 2015 12:25 pm

    ‘Over the period the wood-burner was in operation, 2009-2013, emissions of CO2 actually went up’

    No surprise there.

  14. Say NO 2 Generation Park permalink
    December 6, 2015 10:18 pm

    If anyone is interested in getting involved in the fight against this nonsense project, you can find us on Facebook (Say NO 2 Generation Park) and follow us on Twitter @GenParkResident. Thanks!

  15. February 15, 2016 2:50 pm

    Further to your post on December 4th regarding ‘UEA’s biomess’:-

    You may be interested to see the update on ‘The Norwich Radical’ :-

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