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The biomass industry is nervous

Energy giant RWE has announced that it is suspending work on a biomass plant at Tilbury:

RWE npower has suspended development of a dedicated biomass power plant at Tilbury Power Station blaming lack of detail in the Energy Bill and difficult market conditions.

The company announced the move in a statement released yesterday, confirming work would be halted while "options on project feasibility are assessed and reviewed".

A few days ago, I highlighted Robert Wilson's research on the scope for unmothballing conventional power plants. While RWE's decision on Tilbury might make the need for unmothballing an even more pressing question, there were some other issues in his article that appear relevant. One of the documents he cited, an Ofgem assessment of likely future capacity, reveals that a very large proportion on new capacity is expected to come from biomass (purple in figure below); the contribution from wind (puce for onshore, brown for offshore) is monumentally pathetic.

Click for full sizeThe reason for this is that these are de-rated capacities, ie downgraded to take into account their likely operating performance. Thus all those wind turbines that are alleged to power small cities are, quite properly, counted as only being able to power large villages (from time to time).

So, investors in biomass plants are very nervous, yet the government is relying on them to provide a large chunk of new capacity. Are the contradictions in government energy policy coming home to roost?

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Reader Comments (25)

So if biomass energy production fails from lack of sites or huge increases in fuel price (likely imho) then our digital economy will crash - slightly and frequently, while wind supply goes from neglible to nugatory while grabbing all the column inches.

I respectfully suggest that as long as we play the ball and not the man, the farce that is energy policy/GW policy/farcical democracy in the uk will ever continue.

If you will allow me to take the analogy further, if we were playing football we (skeptics) would have won by now. IPCC, uk Gov etc are playing rugby which is why they keep scoring freely.

Jul 5, 2013 at 10:24 AM | Unregistered Commenterjimbob

So, closing 17.5% and adding 10% of which 3.5% nervous biomass and 3.5% nervous gas and presumably nuclear investors are so nervous they don't figure at all.
The boys and gals at the DECC sure have a cunning plan or are they nervous too.
Ben Elton and John Cleese would find it difficult to parody and impossible to improve on as farce.

Jul 5, 2013 at 10:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterG.Watkins

I've got it, HMG, renewable energy [snigger] - the DECC and their biomass insanity it's all just: pulp fiction.

Long lost and at best an inconceivably incomprehensible synopsis - the plot has long since been trashed and now it has fallen into the massive faecal biomass converter............Jeepers, where's Stephen King when you need him! Crikey - this is how it feels to be living inside a execrably badly formed and ill thought out novella.

Jul 5, 2013 at 10:29 AM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

The expectation has always to be that some very smart Government planners and negotiators are working dilligently away in our best interests behind the scenes in ways that we plebs couldn't possibly grasp or understand. This latest news would seem to contradict that.

In fact they really are as crap as we feared, and that's worrying because it means that their default position is panic and bribery ... bigger subsidies and longer periods of price fixing, all - naturally - tax payer funded.

Is anyone genuinely confident that they won't bollix up the potential of shale's "Get out of Jail" card just as badly?

Jul 5, 2013 at 10:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterJerryM

biomass energy makes plenty of sense where you anyway have a large crop residue which you need to get rid of - sugar cane bagasse in Brazil is the poster boy, where much of the bagasse is turned into ethanol, fuelling cars. It represents a better option of dealing with the waste than merely burning it. But growing stuff specifically to burn it, fuelling a power station is so bloody silly one hardly knows where to begin. Of course there is the issue of crop displacement; of course biomass gives you less btus for your buck than fossil fuel; of course the costings are rarely complete, covering the whole supply chain; of course investment is always going to be an issue when one of the players in the game is HMG, notorious for dilatoriness and duplicity.
The boys and girls at DECC shold be made to repeat, a few thousand times a day "Renewable energy is site specific" Yes, if you live in a forest, get your heat and power from wood; if you live on a windy Welsh hillside, have a windmill; if you've got a 1000 unit pig farm why aren't you boiling up the poo to get methane and powering and heating the whole place with it? Renewables, including biomass, really have no part to play in 'national energy policy'. Its simply ridiculous that the people who seem to be running the show think differently.

Jul 5, 2013 at 10:59 AM | Unregistered Commenterbill

That is one frightening graph.
Glad I have invested in backup power already (not wind, solar or biomass).

Jul 5, 2013 at 11:07 AM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

Sorry Bill, but please leave our Welsh hillsides alone.
The gardens of MPs who advocate bird mincers are the only places windmills should be allowed.

Jul 5, 2013 at 11:14 AM | Unregistered CommenterG.Watkins

While "de-rating" of wind output sounds plausible, it is basically a return to the old myth that the wind will always be blowing somewhere within the catchment area.
Reality is going to bite them in the **se very soon.

Jul 5, 2013 at 11:47 AM | Unregistered CommenterMikeH

the post above suggests that biomass operators are nervous... But isn't there another way to read this:

RWE npower has suspended development of a dedicated biomass power plant at Tilbury Power Station blaming lack of detail in the Energy Bill and difficult market conditions.

Every operator seems to be saying the same thing: we're not going to build any new capacity until we know what the EMR says. And why would they? Nobody wants to play their cards before they know what they are. Centrica, for e.g. said there would be no more gas plant from them until after the bill had been passed.

investors in biomass plants are very nervous

Isn't it the case that investors in renewables in general have been nervous? Hence the EMR. And hence almost every MP and Lord/Lady making speeches in the readings of the EMR bill about the need for 'investor certainty'.

The EMR is an attempt to mend the failures of previous legislation. Good money after bad; bad policy upon bad policy. The hope is that once the government have managed to create a bill that abolishes nervousness, tens, if not hundreds of £billions of investment will suddenly be unleashed.

Jul 5, 2013 at 12:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterBen Pile

Don't you mean biomass energy providers are complaining they want bigger guaranteed subsidies?

Jul 5, 2013 at 12:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterWoodsy42

Athelstan @ 10.29

I enjoyed "Alice in Wonderland" when I was young, we just need to attach new names to the characters.

As an 'umble pensioner I was, perhaps perversely, disappointed when the cold weather didn't continue for another couple of weeks and bring the entire supply system crashing down; after surviving the last winter I'd rather the shambles and those responsible had been exposed this year than two or three years further down the road when even more of the reliable power sources are beyond recall, and all we will be able to do is tear our collective hair out in frustration.

Jul 5, 2013 at 12:49 PM | Registered CommentermikemUK

Interesting. I hadn't realised we were betting so much on biomass here in the UK.
It didn't seem like something we would do as we don't have the mass agricultural waste of a large rural economy. Our farms are actually quite efficient so the biomass isn't going to just turn up.

We need to buy in biomass which is costly and hardly green when transport is included.
Or we need to divert our food production into biomass - too dumb to bother criticising.

Or, maybe we should look at farming seaweed? Long chains winding round off the cost with seaweed growing on them. It doesn't need to move fast or smoothly so we could have the waves drag the chains round and be even greener. By greener I mean cheap to run.

Speculative or even mere science fiction, maybe, but we have to think of something.

Jul 5, 2013 at 12:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterM Courtney

I notice that Dave Cameron 'opened' the London Array YESTERDAY - when there was some wind - so that he could look out to sea and see the blades turning..
Wonder what version of the crap he would have come out with today (no wind) about 'proving what a wonderful place Britain was to invest in...'
I wish I had their child-like naivety...

Jul 5, 2013 at 12:56 PM | Unregistered Commentersherlock1

If we promise not to win the Tour de France, do you think the French might up the amount of nuclear-electricity they will sell us? It might become as valuable a commodity as water on the beaches of Dunkirk.

Jul 5, 2013 at 1:16 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

This “biomass generation” scheme strikes me as building a power station that burns the produce of a farm that has been specially built to produce the fuel, so using more power to grow the produce that the power station burns, which powers the farm that has been specially built… well, you get the picture. Much like that (mythical?) power station in Russia, whose only client was the coal mine, whose only customer was the power station.

Many farms are actually using their waste for fuel, though I am not sure how (if at all) they are taxed on it (I have little doubt that the taxman would be interested); this sort of thing ought to be encouraged, especially the idea of extracting the methane from human sewage – surely a potentially rich source of methane, as there is so much of it.

Jul 5, 2013 at 1:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterRadical Rodent

Don't worry friends,
When you are in a bind we will gladly sell you the power we generate from our brand spanking new 1100MW coal fired power station I am busy commissioning...
It is conveniently located at the Maasvlakte Rotterdam area, looking out over the North Sea, right next to that big underwater (1000MW) power cable between here and the UK (Isle of Grain in Kent).

If you also give us that wonderfull price of 100 pounds per MWh, which apparently you promised to the windmill guys, you will be our bestist-specialist friends and we will run it day and night, just for you!

I kid of course, and feel for you. But please don't feel too alone, because our looooony Dutch govt is also planning to build 4000MW of off shore wind....sigh.

Jul 5, 2013 at 1:55 PM | Unregistered Commenterwijnand

Given the Drax scenario at more biomass fueled generators the whole thing must stop. Cutting and chipping American hardwoods seems a stupid way to run a UK energy business. Biomass also makes MORE CO2 per Kwh than dear old coal it makes the carbon reduction program look increasingly like a plan conceived by a madman.

Jul 5, 2013 at 3:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Marshall

As an 'umble pensioner I was, perhaps perversely, disappointed when the cold weather didn't continue for another couple of weeks and bring the entire supply system crashing down; after surviving the last winter I'd rather the shambles and those responsible had been exposed this year than two or three years further down the road when even more of the reliable power sources are beyond recall, and all we will be able to do is tear our collective hair out in frustration.

What's needed here mikemUK is a little biblical stuff:

They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Matthew 13:40-43)

Believer, atheist and agnostic alike - 'retribution' it's a nice thought.

Jul 5, 2013 at 3:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

@ Bill, 10:59: As someone who lives partly over 850ft up in the hills of Powys and partly in London, I can assure you there is sod all difference in the amount of wind in either location. The primary reason that bird-mashers are located in remote uplands is that the subsidies they attract produce far, far greater income than the only other economic use they have - as upland grazing. It's all about money generation, not energy generation - the current going rate for upland pasture in our area is less than £5K per acre.

Jul 5, 2013 at 4:47 PM | Registered CommenterSalopian

"disappointed when the cold weather didn't continue"

Same here really. Although real power cuts (due to sudden absence of 'renewables') will be more satisfying and harder to fix. Greens need to be inconvenienced as much as the rest of us...

Jul 5, 2013 at 6:22 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

"Renewables" is the wrong term. It includes geothermal which works fine in the right places. Likewise, tidal and hydro.

The problem is with the "Unreliables".

That sounds better "Renewables vs Reliables".
Sure coal, gas and nuclear go offline occasionally but we have a good idea of when that is going to happen. They are "Reliables".

Jul 5, 2013 at 7:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterM Courtney

@M Courtney: Spot on; coal, gas and nuclear are the only reliable energy sources at the moment. Wind is totally sporadic, tidal is cyclical and can be significantly affected by the weather and geothermal and hydro are only available locally.

Jul 5, 2013 at 9:38 PM | Registered CommenterSalopian

people are too negative. There are large barge mounted power plants that can be brought to England to solve the problem. There is a fleet of large, economic, diesel plants available now. Even more interesting is a fleet of nuclear barge plants being built in Russia.
from 2010 " Photos show the Akademik Lomonosov, a 21,500-ton barge equipped with twin 35-megawatt light-water reactors, slipping into the water at St. Petersburg's Baltic Shipyard.

The Akademik Lomonosov represents a particularly flexible example of the small modular reactor (SMR) nuclear power plants that are under development worldwide. SMRs provide a 'scale of multiples' that could lower the cost of financing nuclear energy. But their flexibility also brings a phalanx of new risk considerations to the nuclear bargain -- particularly one like this that's designed to change locales. No surprise then that Greenpeace Russia has dubbed the Akademik Lomonosov the world’s most dangerous nuclear...."
The Ak Lom could be hooked in to the UK grid easily and moored at a place where the cables from the offshore windfarms are landed.

If the smarties in the City are not on to this yet, I'd be surprised. Follow the money.

Jul 5, 2013 at 10:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Hill

Radical Rodent: methane from sewage has been exploited for decades. I believe Severn Trent put in their first system in the 50s. However it has recently become much more popular due to the rising cost of power and the possibility of subsidies. There is now a growing sub-sector of the business which offers technology to increase the methane yield - ultrasonic cell disruption, for example. Expect it to become more prevalent as waste water treatment works are refurbished and expanded to take advantage of the latest technologies.

Jul 5, 2013 at 11:13 PM | Registered Commentermikeh

i agree its tricky i guess i have a biomass boiler and i really think its great

Dec 17, 2013 at 2:50 PM | Unregistered Commenterbob

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