University of East Anglia’s Biomess
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;