RWE npower is halting operations at its Tilbury biomass power station, with the likely loss of 220 jobs, in a blow to Britain’s renewable power industry.
But some green campaigners welcomed the closure, which will take effect from the end of October, as they argue biomass use on a large scale is environmentally unsustainable.
The closure will also raise further concerns over the ability to “keep the lights on” as an increasing number of ageing power stations are taken out of service.
The German electricity generator blamed a lack of investment capacity and the difficulty in converting the plant – the world’s biggest biomass power station, with a planned capacity of 750MW – to use wood, waste oil and other organic materials in place of coal.
Biomass investors have also been rattled by the government’s planned changes in subsidies for biomass and other renewable forms of energy. Drax, Britain’s biggest coal-fired power station, last year shelved plans for two new biomass power stations.
Tilbury has a complex history that closely reflects the developments in energy and environment policy over the past decade.
Originally a coal-fired plant, it fell foul of EU regulations intended to cut airborne pollutants such as sulphur, and was intended in 2008 to be gradually run down, with a closure date of 2015.
But in 2010, the station was given a new lease of life as RWE announced its intention to experiment with biomass, sourced from sustainable forests, energy crops and waste.
Last year, RWE applied for environmental permits that would have kept the plant open as the world’s biggest biomass burner. The investment required would run to the low hundreds of millions of pounds, less than building a new power station but a sum that would require considerable confidence in the future of biomass, as coal is now at its lower price for years.
Now, the company has decided it has other investment priorities.
However, RWE is open to selling the power station to another operator, if a buyer can be found. The company is only mothballing the plant, not dismantling it.
Roger Miesen, chief technical officer at RWE Generation, said: “It is with regret that we are announcing the decision to halt the Tilbury biomass project. This decision has not been taken lightly. Tilbury remains a good site for future power generation. RWE still believes that biomass has a role to play in future power generation and will continue to progress options at strategic sites.”
The closure has reopened debate over the future of biomass power generation in Britain.
The government supports biomass, as a low-carbon form of power generation compared with fossil fuels – the trees and plants used as fuel take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow, so if they are regrown under environmentally sound conditions, burning them results in a net carbon saving as it displaces coal and gas.
However, that is not the whole story, according to many green campaigners. They point to problems with sourcing sufficient quantities of biomass, much of which has to be imported, and say that without strict regulations, growing trees and crops for biomass can lead to deforestation in developing countries. There are also concerns about the effects of the soot that comes from burning the organic fuel.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010