1 November 1996

Wood-fuelled plants on the back burner

By Robert Harris

PLANS to generate electricity at two wood-fuelled power stations, at Eye, Suffolk and Cricklade, Wilts, are no nearer fruition than a year ago.

And if they are built, it is far from certain that farm-grown short-rotation coppice will be the fuel of choice, at least in the short term.

Technology problems have caused the delay, says Nigel Viney, energy production manager at Banks Agriculture. The company will act as fuel supplier to South Western Power which is responsible for building and operating the power stations. "It might not be a problem. We shall know in the next two months whether it will be an issue or not."

Last year, he predicted planning permission would be sought for the two sites in the spring and autumn of this year. That has not happened. "Its all talk still and no direct action," admits Gerry Swarbrick, managing director of South Western Power. "Weve had difficulties finding the right type of gasification technology."

He expects to announce an agreement by Christmas, and hopes planning permission will follow next year. Electricity generation is expected in 1999, 18-24 months behind the original estimates.

Proven steam-powered technology, which would have avoided similar delays, was ignored in the last NFFO round, says Mr Swarbrick. Several projects were turned down, including SWPs Indian Queens, a proposed 3mW site in Cornwall.

"It would have been under construction by now. It was always our preference to use steam-powered turbines." That would have allowed the whole concept of biomass electricity production, including the fuel supply chain, to be tested earlier, he maintains.

New technology could have followed. "The future lies with gasification – it is certainly more efficient." But it is still experimental, he says.

Most of the 33,000t of dry wood needed to produce the combined output of 11mW of electricity – enough to power 20,000 homes – was expected to come from 2500ha (6175 acres) of short-rotation coppice.

That is unlikely, admits Mr Swarbrick. "The economic case for arable coppice has gone. We are very disappointed that has happened, though both sites are capable of taking wood residues."

Mr Viney agrees. "We believe we will get sufficient wood fuel." But, he adds, that is likely to consist mainly of existing commercial woodland waste.

The switch away from short-rotation coppice is reversible, and farmers will be able to supply wood in the future, Mr Swarbrick stresses. "We hope the case for short-rotation coppice will come back."

Banks Agriculture expected to sign its first short-rotation coppice growers on 15-year contracts last spring. Most were expected to follow this coming one. That looks unlikely, says Mr Viney. "You can talk to farmers until you are blue in the face. Until South Western Power asks us to deliver fuel to the sites it is pointless raising everyones hopes. I hope we shall have something exciting to say in 6-8 weeks."

Mr Swarbrick is determined to see the projects through. "The whole future of electricity production from biomass depends on it."n

Banks Agricultures six commercial-sized short-rotation coppice trials continue across the UK. But bleaker crop prospects mean waste wood is a more likely power station fuel source for now, says Nigel Viney.


&#8226 18-24 months behind schedule.

&#8226 Gasifier technology unproven.

&#8226 Planning permission 1998?

&#8226 Electricity generation 1999?

&#8226 Existing woodland waste likely to replace short rotation coppice as prime fuel source.