New biomass power stations planned for Port Talbot and Holyhead

pt from air

Proposed site of Port Talbot biomass power station

The proposals

Two new biomass  power stations in Wales, one in Holyhead, Anglesey and one in Port Talbot in south Wales. Both would be burning virgin wood.  Each would be 299MWe (although one report says that the Port Talbot one would be 349MW) and would be classed as ‘Combined Heat and Power’ (CHP) plants. Under UK law, biomass power stations can be subsidised as CHP even if they are just 35% efficient and make use of a very small proportion of heat. The proposed biomass power stations are being presented as ‘Eco Parks’, with waste heat from the plants being used for the production of food (fish, prawns, vegetables). The total cost is said to be £2bn, with some of the investment coming from the Chinese company Sinofortone. The developer in both cases is Orthios Eco Parks, a new company with a single director, Sean McCormick, an architect from Chester.

These are not entirely new projects. Planning permissions for large, albeit not identical biomass power station schemes, proposed by different developers, were granted several years ago at both sites.Those permissions remain valid (planning permissions are granted to a site, rather than to a company, and can be used by new site owners or leaseholders) but it is not clear at this point whether or how far the new proposals (especially the one in Port Talbot) would be covered by the existing permissions. If the new proposals are slightly different, Orthios could apply for a variation of the planning conditions. If they are substantially different, they would need to apply for a new planning permission.  Even if the proposals are broadly the same as before, Orthios may have to apply for additional permissions for the fish farms.

Port Talbot

The project is a partnership with Associated British Ports. Planning permission for a biomass plant on this site was first given in 2007, to Prenergy Power. There was a huge local campaign against the project, with campaigners citing carbon emissions,  fire risks from wood storage and air pollution as key concerns. Port Talbot is a heavily industrialised area, and has an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) in the area where the new power station is planned because of the already poor air quality.

PTRAPS

Photo: Jeremy Bailey

In September 2012, Prenergy applied for permission to burn wood pellets as well as wood chips at the plant. Under pressure from local campaigners, Neath Port Talbot council deferred a decision, and Prenergy then withdrew the application.

It is not clear whether the current proposals are based on burning wood pellets, but it is hard to see how such a huge plant could be viable otherwise, as the UK simply does not produce enough wood to feed all the current and proposed biomass power stations – see below.

In December 2012, Prenergy built a small road onto the site in order to keep the planning permission live. The project did not progress and Prenergy Power went into liquidation in 2013, claiming that changes made to subsidies for renewable energy meant that the project was no longer viable.

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Artist’s image of proposed eco park. Photo: mwmbwls, creative commons

Holyhead

Planning permission was granted to Anglesey Aluminium in 2011 for a 299 MWe biomass plant on the site. In February 2015, the company signed a deal with Lateral Eco Parks (another company owned by Sean McCormick, the director of Orthios Eco Parks) to buy the site. Orthios has stated that it hopes the scheme will be operational by 2017.

What’s wrong with such big biomass power stations?

There are several serious concerns about these proposals:

Increased carbon emissions

UK legislation treats biomass as a low-carbon fuel source, accounting for little more than the carbon emissions associated with fossil fuel use, e.g. for turning wood into pellets and transporting those.  It is claimed that the wood only releases the carbon which it absorbed during the lifetime of the tree. However, research shows that burning wood and other biofuels is no better than burning coal in terms of carbon emissions (and can in certain scenarios be worse). This is largely because biomass power stations are generally less efficient than coal-fired ones.  In addition, when a tree is felled and burned, it releases all the carbon it absorbed during its lifetime – but it may have taken decades or even hundreds of years to grow, and will be burnt in minutes. More carbon is released by the damage to the soil caused by logging, and yet more when the wood is dried, processed into pellets and transported. One report suggests that the Welsh projects will be able to capture carbon emissions. However, this is fantasy: capturing carbon from a biomass power station has never been attempted, and is almost certainly technically and economically unviable.

Threats to forests

Deforestation is on the increase in the Southeast US, pictured here, as well as in other parts of the world due to the UK's increased demand for biomass. Photo courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance

Deforestation in the Southeast US. Photo courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance

If all the UK’s proposed biomass plants go ahead, over 65m tonnes of wood per year will be required to power them. According to Anglesey Aluminium, who got the original planning permission for such a large biomass power station in Holyhead, that plant alone was to burn 2.4m tonnes of wood each year [1].  However, the UK produces only 11m tonnes of wood per year, for use across all industries.

Most of the wood burnt – or planned to be burnt – in UK biomass plants comes from North America, in particular native hardwood forests in British Columbia and the southern USA. Highly biodiverse and carbon-rich forests are being felled to produce wood pellets for the UK, and replaced with monoculture plantations. According to the Dogwood Alliance, a group campaigning to protect forests in the southern US, logging is ‘a major driver of habitat and species loss, as well as the degradation of water resources and carbon sinks’.

 Air pollution

Burning wood emits the same kind of pollutants as burning coal, albeit smaller quantities of certain pollutants (mainly sulphur dioxide and mercury) and greater quantity of others (such as volatile organic ompounds (VOCs) and, generally, small particulates, i.e. PM2.5). Burning wood also release a range of other pollutants, including antimony, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, dioxins and furans, lead, manganese, mercury, nickel, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), selenium, vanadium and zinc. Air quality is a particular concern in Port Talbot, which already has serious issues with air pollution.

More information on the health effects of burning wood.

More information on what’s wrong with biomass.

Dependent on Contracts for Difference?

These projects are almost certainly dependent on securing Contracts for Difference (CfDs) in order to be financially viable. CfDs – a new source of subsidy for renewable energy projects in the UK, currently being phased in – guarantee electricity generating companies a ‘strike price’ for each unit of electricity they produce. Strike prices are set far above the market (wholesale) price, so generators are guaranteed a profit for the 15 years of the contract. In a recent BBC report about the Anglesey project, the company raising funds for the scheme says, ‘We already have letters of consent from three major investment banks. These are based on securing the Contracts for Difference for the project….the project start will depend on securing the Contracts for Difference(CfD).” No CfDs, no project.

What you can do

  • If you live in Anglesey or Port Talbot, please contact us to discuss what we can do together to stop these new biomass power plants: biofuelwatch@ymail.com
  • Please email the Department of Energy and Climate Change and tell them not to grant CfD subsidies to biomass power stations

 

[1] page 5: 60 deliveries of 40,000 tonnes per year

 

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