Latest News - Tilbury power station may become 650 MW biomass plant

Tilbury power station may become 650 MW biomass plant
Wed, Apr 27, 2011
Tilbury power station, currently due to close by 2015 under European laws, may be granted a new lease of life as a biomass plant.


The 1,000 megawatt power station on the banks of the Thames has been approved for conversion by RWE npower to burn wood pellets instead of coal to a capacity of 650 megawatts.  If Europe grants exemption, Tilbury would become the largest biomass plant in the world. 


Biofuelwatch, a volunteer-led organisation that examines the effects of increasing bioenergy demand, estimates that such a move would push the UK's total planned demand for biomass to around 60 million tonnes of wood per year.  At the moment, the Forestry Commission estimates that only an additional 2 million tonnes of wood could be produced from within the UK by 2020.  The simplicity of the figures speak for themselves: there is a massive shortfall between supply and impending demand for wood in the UK.


Of course, RWE npower recognises that much of its wood pellet demand will have to be met by wood imports.  Specifically, it plans to ship the majority of its fuel needs from a RWE wood pellet plant in Georgia, USA.


Furthermore, RWE believes it will be just as cheap for the plant to burn wood pellets as coal, and well may it do so, considering Government subsidies for renewables and taxes on fossil-fuel plants.  However, such proposals can have no credible environmental or sustainable business case, when you take into consideration the carbon emissions released from burning wood to generate 650 megawatts and the environmental impact of shipping huge volumes of wood. The sheer quantities of wood required cannot be met by current global wood supply without endangering the forests of the Southern hemisphere.  Burning wood for energy on such a massive scale is ill-conceived and such plans require considerable more thought.


The Wood Panel Industries Federation (WPIF) is calling on the Government to reconsider the prominent role it has accorded to biomass in meeting renewable energy targets and particularly the financial incentive provided under the Renewables Obligation (RO).


Current subsidies granted to energy companies for burning wood create a distortion in the wood market and raise the price of timber to a price at which wood panel manufacturers cannot compete.  Should plans continue in their current form, wood panel manufacturing will be forced to leave the UK, taking with it jobs, a means of locking carbon in high-quality wood products and a renewable heat contribution of 1639 GWh per year (which in 2009, represented 36% of the total output from UK industry).  This is in addition to the role the industry plays in processing recovered wood, which each year amounts to around 1.1million tonnes or roughly a quarter of their raw wood material needs.


Large scale electricity-only biomass does considerable environmental damage and threatens to displace an important UK industry.  Despite this, the current situation seems to indicate that the Government is willing to sacrifice wood panel manufacturing on the altar of renewable energy targets in its mistaken belief that biomass energy is 'green'. 


Another campaigner, Helena Paul from Econexus adds: “We need immediate emission reductions to avoid runaway climate instability. Large-scale biomass burning makes no sense because it involves releasing more greenhouse gases per unit of energy than coal during the next few critical years, even if this is (in theory) made up by new growth later. This dangerous emissions debt alone should halt developments worldwide such as Tilbury.” 


RWE hopes to have completed the conversion by the end of the year and while burning biomass does not automatically save Tilbury from scheduled closure, RWE is expected to apply to Europe for an exemption if this year's trials at the station are successful.

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