Wales Spearheads European Biomass Push

The construction of the world’s biggest biomass plant in Wales could be the start of a rapid expansion in biomass electricity and heat if a new EU renewable energy directive expected to be published tomorrow [Wednesday, January 23, 2008] contains binding targets for biomass energy production for each member nation as outlined in a draft proposal.

Primary energy production from solid biomass has been steadily increasing in Europe and reached 62.4 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) in 2006 up 3.1 Mtoe or 5.3% from 2005.

Biomass currently accounts for 4% of the EU’s energy production, but the goal of the EU Biomass Action Plan of 2005 is to double that by 2010.

Thomas Siegmund, spokesperson of the German Bioenergy Association (Bundesverband BioEnergie, BBE), said the new EU directive would strengthen the obligation of member country’s to get more energy from biomass and also include carbon dioxide mitigation calculations to make the price of renewables more attractive.

“The future of biomass, especially bioheat, looks very promising if this directive becomes law,” Siegmund told

The new 350-megawatt (MW) wood chip fuelled electricity generating plant in Port Talbot, south Wales, will supply electricity to around 587,000 homes — or half the households in Wales — when it starts to operate at the beginning of 2010.

The plant will contribute about 70 percent to the Welsh Assembly’s target of generating 4 Terawatt hours of renewable electricity for Wales by 2010 and 7 Terawatt hours by 2020.

Designed to achieve an efficiency of 35 to 40 percent in energy conversion, it will operate for 8,000 hours each year or almost 22 hours a day for 365 days a year.

Electricity will be sent through a 275 KV cable to a local electricity substation to be fed into the national power grid.

“Building a biomass plant has the advantage of allowing a big input of renewable energy from a reliable source into the country’s energy mix in a short time,” said Kevin Mowbray, from the Welsh Energy Research Centre, an independent research body that advises the government and industry on how to implement renewable energy objectives. Plus, “a biomass plant of this size makes sense in Port Talbot because you can bring in huge amounts of wood by sea,” he said.

Because there is no large wood chip industry in the UK, the 2.5 to 3 million tons of clean wood chip fuel needed each year to power the plant will be imported from Baltic countries such as Latvia and Lithuania as well as from sustainable forests in Canada and the U.S., according to Prenergy Power, the company building the plant.

However, 5 to 10 percent of the wood chips could come from the UK. Forests cover about 14% of the land area in Wales or about 290,000 hectares.

Critics say the Port Talbot plant does not exploit its potential to produce heat as well as electricity from its steam turbines. And this concern is shared by Mowbray, who said the infrastructure needed to connect the plant to the local district heating network should have been planned earlier.

“The company was fully aware of the need to provide heating, but after consultations with our neighbours, including the Corus steelworks, we were told that heating was not a requirement. Nevertheless, we are building a pipeline to the perimeter so that we can meet any demand for heat should one arise in the future,” Matthew Carse, Prenergy Power director, told

Even though it will only generate electricity, the new plant will still significantly boost the UK’s biomass energy production: biomass energy currently supplies about 2% of UK’s electricity generation and 1% of the UK’s heat generation.

Within the EU, those countries with large forests are the biggest users of biomass: France generates about 9% of its primary energy from biomass (96 Mtoe) followed by Sweden (8.9 Mtoe), Germany (8.8Mtoe) and Finland 7.4 Mtoe), according to a report by the EU.

Looking ahead to increased development of biomass in Wales, Mowbray said that there were plans to concentrate on building smaller scale biomass installations around the country for local energy generation.

Biomass is not the only renewable energy the country is looking at. Wales currently is pioneering a huge tidal wave power station, the Severn Barrage, that could provide 5% of the UK’s electricity. But Mowbray explained that one of the key barriers to more investment in renewables was uncertainty about the future price of carbon emissions.

“Companies want to invest in biomass and other renewables but the volatility in the price of carbon emissions increases the risk that some projects could turn out to be unprofitable. If they were able to predict the price of carbon emissions over say a 20-year investment cycle, they would invest more in renewable energy,” he said.

Dr. Ottmar Edenhofer from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany, (Potsdam-Institut für Klimafolgenforschung) agrees. He argued at the Central European Biomass Conference 2008 in Graz last week that renewables would be the first choice if carbon emissions were priced at a level that reflected their impact on the climate.

Edenhofer said a greater use of renewables would allow economies to continue to grow without heating up the climate.

Heinz Kopetz, president of the European Biomass Association (AEBIOM), Brussels, also spoke at the Graz conference, which was attended by 1000 delegates from 50 countries. He said that the use of renewables in Europe would have to increase by 12 percent each year for the next 12 years if the EU is to meet its objective of generating 20 percent of energy from renewables by 2020.

He said that a radical switch to renewables would bring “security, new jobs, independence, [and] peace” to a world hit by spiraling costs for oil and by climate change.

The price of oil has tripled and the price of crops doubled since 2005, he noted.

The AEBIOM estimates that by 2010 the production of energy from solid biomass could be 74.5 Mtoe with 6.6 Mtoe from urban waste biomass. By 2020, biomass energy could reach 220 Mtoe, split between 120 Mtoe or 360 Terawatt hours of heat, 60 Mtoe of electricity and 40 Mtoe of transport energy.

Jane Burgermeiser is a writer based in Austria.

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