Insight: Dr Andrew Toft of Eco2, which wants to build a straw-powered plant at Mendlesham, on moving forward with biomass
SUFFOLK’S fields have long provided food for our tables. This heritage could be about to enter a new, hi-tech arena: the provision of renewable energy.
As a nation, we are obliged to increase the role of renewable energy in our electricity supplies. This will help in the battle against climate change and also improve our energy security. Renewable energy comes in many forms but generating electricity from local agricultural residues (in my case, straw) offers the best opportunity for local communities to benefit from the green revolution.
This is because, in most cases, renewable energy is a relatively hands-off exercise. A device is installed and then the owner sits back and waits for the sun to shine, the wind to blow or the tide to turn. Biomass is different. If you want to develop a biomass project, hands-off operations are not an option. Fuel must be gathered, stored and transported to the power station on a daily basis. A biomass development has to become part of the community, integrated with the agricultural economy that is so important to the counties of the East of England.
Study after study has shown that projects which generate renewable energy from biomass create more jobs than any other renewable resource, culminating in 35,000 to 50,000 new roles in the UK by 2020. It’s not hard to see why. Just building the power station requires many hands and a substantial inward investment. Power stations need to be operated and maintained by highly trained personnel so that they perform cleanly and reliably. And, most important of all, there is the need to set up and pay for a supply chain that will ensure that the generator keeps spinning. There’s nothing new in the concept of supplying agricultural produce to a user on a just-in-time basis, as the quiet whirr of a milkman’s float would testify. There is nothing new about burning a fuel to generate electricity. Yet bringing the whole system together, from field to fusebox, is new - and novelty can create controversy.
In Suffolk we are already seeing the emergence of a food vs fuel debate around the use of straw for energy. Straw has a wealth of uses, from animal bedding to soil enrichment, which must be considered during the development of a renewable energy plant. No sensible developer would wish to develop projects that aggravate existing markets. No straw user, the developer included, benefits from the increased prices and instability that would result. Equally, the need to protect the quality of land must be factored in (it helps that we return nutrients to the field in our ash). Nevertheless, there are farms that would welcome the opportunity that renewable energy brings.
This is not, in my view, a zero sum game. We wish to use more of nature’s bounty, not simply trigger a change in use.
Another difficulty can be scale. As the size of plant increases, so relative capital and operating costs fall. However, biomass is inherently expensive to move around and there comes a point at which scale economies are outweighed by the increase in transport costs, so size can’t increase to the point that the local connection is lost. Nevertheless, smaller scale facilities do increase the link between local produce and local generation. They also offer opportunities to generate heat as well as electricity, which increases efficiencies. All good stuff.
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Unfortunately, poor economies of scale confine smaller scale projects to niche opportunities. We have a choice: embrace viable larger scale projects or wait for small scale projects that may never emerge. Again, this isn’t really a zero-sum game; it is possible for large and small scale facilities to sit side by side. What we shouldn’t do is prevent perfectly good projects from proceeding in the hope that a better project may be just around the corner. We mustn’t let the best be the enemy of the good.
None of the above is unique to straw. Using biomass for energy represents a step change in how we use our natural resources and the impacts of such projects must be considered from the outset. Overall, the benefits of a well thought out project from an experienced developer will always outweigh impacts that can be mitigated with due care.
I’ve been working in renewables for 20 years. I’m driven by the wider need to reduce our carbon emissions and in the past I have focused on these global concerns rather than the local benefits set out here. The only way to see biomass fulfil its potential is to draw a clear line between the establishment of a bioenergy plant and the direct employment and investment required to keep it going.
The fields of eastern England are on the brink of providing both sustenance and sustainability. With vision, renewable energy from biomass can flourish, bringing with it new agricultural incomes whilst allowing a hi-tech industry to blossom. Nature’s bounty indeed.