It’s more than a year since Forth Energy announced that it was to scrap proposals to build a giant power plant on Leith Docks.
But not before their Leith biomass plan had earned the moniker of the most “unpopular planning application in Edinburgh’s history,” after 1800 objections were triggered by the proposal.
And despite withdrawing that application, it turns out that the owners of Forth Energy, Forth Ports, and energy giant SSE, have clearly not yet abandoned all hope of building a big biomass power plant on Leith Docks.
Both firms have been lobbying the Scottish Government on subsidies, as well as planners at the City of Edinburgh Council, to lay the ground for a big biomass comeback.
Sadly they’ve been having some success, it would appear.
This week, the City of Edinburgh Council released the latest version of the next proposed Local Development Plan. This key document sets out how land throughout the city should be developed – and it proposes to re-designate Forth Port’s land at Leith Docks from mixed-use/residential to industrial use.
Whilst this is justified in many people’s eyes due to the widely trailed prospect that the docks may one day become the base for an off-shore wind manufacturer thus creating hundreds of local jobs in the process – without conditions, this re-designation also has side-effects that many locals will regret.
It makes it far easier for Forth Energy to get planning permission for any renewed giant biomass plant proposal.
And should you think this is pure speculation, you may wish to read the submissions Forth Ports and SSE made to the planners as part of the consultation process for the latest Local Development Plan.
Here’s what SSE’s Flavia Paterson slipped in to their submission: “The City must focus on opportunities for the decentralisation of energy generation into more locally-based solutions and also on the opportunities for CHP, to advance the use of renewable heat….The proposed manufacturing hub for the offshore renewable energy industry will also require large amounts of power in operation, and ways to provide this from renewable sources should be investigated.”
You may think that sounds fairly benign. After all, it would be a good thing to supply heat to local manufacturing facilities right?
Well Forth Ports are a little bit more aggressive – and revealing – in their lobbying. They make it clear that the city should not encourage new developments in the city to incorporate small-scale CHP into their construction plans even though these would be scaled perfectly to operate at climate friendly, high efficiencies.
Why? Because that would mean that it would be harder for them to sell heat from “commercial scale…plants capable of delivering large volumes of heat.”
The continue in their submission : “The Port of Leith should be recognised as having the potential for larger-scale decentralised renewable electricity and heat generation above 10MW.
“This is especially important as the proposed new manufacturing developments in the area will use large volumes of electricity and heat, and it will be important to ensure that these developments are powered by renewable sources. Fuel can be brought to the Port by ship, the lowest carbon means of transportation, being over 14 times more carbon efficient that road transport.
“The proposal to require major developments, above a specified scale, to include land or floorspace for a CHP plant is limiting in the following ways. Firstly, it requires a proposed development to make specified provision for a CHP plant and does not allow the selection of alternative options for electricity and heat generation for example connection to a district heat network. Secondly, it does not support the development of CHP plants at a commercial scale which are capable of delivering electricity, large volumes of heat/cooling to industry and heat to district heat networks.”
Although the city is proposing to re-zone the land for industrial use, the draft LDP plans show planners have sensibly retained proposals that will require major developments elsewhere to set-aside land for their own heat plants.
Greener Leith also argued that planners should pay more heed to the visual impact of any industrial development on the docks and so we’re also pleased to see that planners have included a clause that may give some measure of comfort to those who live around the Shore.
The proposed conditions in the LDP require that: “the character and sense of place in The Shore is important to the tourism potential of Leith. Views from The Shore will be a factor in considering proposals for new larger buildings.”
So, Forth Ports have removed some of the barriers preventing them from building a power plant through the planning system, but they do not appear to have won everything they wanted.
You might think this was the end of the lobbying, but it isn’t.
The original Leith plant was one of four large power plants initially proposed by Forth Energy. (The other plants, which may yet get the green light, are proposed in Rosyth, Dundee, and Grangemouth.)
When they were first proposed, each one would have qualified for an estimated £200m per year in public subsidy, paid through consumer energy bills, even though their role in tackling the immediate threat from climate change is questionable to say the least.
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Forth Energy has also been lobbying the Scottish Government to try to make sure that a recent review of government subsidies did not threaten the profitability of their large-scale biomass plans.
On this front it would seem that they are likely to have more success, though they seem to argue that they should be entitled to millions of pounds of public subsidy even if all the heat generated by their plants is dumped into the sea for the entire lifetime of the plant.
For a while, it looked as though the Scottish Government might back proposals put forwards by Greener Leith, alongside other environmental groups, that large-scale biomass plants should only qualify for subsidy if they actually delivered energy that meets EU guidance on operating efficiency (this means operating at 70% efficiency or more), as this means that they are indeed likely to provide a carbon saving over generating energy by coal.
But in the end the Scottish Government looks set to allow the operators of large biomass plants to operate at far lower efficiency rates and still qualify for “renewable energy” subsidies, even though this decision seems at odds with their own biomass policies which says: “Wood-fuelled biomass should be used in small heat only and CHP applications, off gas grid, at a scale appropriate to make best use of both the available heat, and of local supply.”
In a recent statement Almuth Ernsting, of Biofuelwatch, said: “Remarkably, the Scottish Government sets out in its own Electricity Generation Policy Statement the reasons why it is not sensible to promote the large scale production of electricity from burning trees. And yet it is proposing to do just that.”
He adds: “The policy also states that ‘given the limited resource, we have to ensure that it’s used as efficiently as possible,’ and recognises that heat-only and CHP schemes can achieve much higher efficiencies than those generating electricity. However, the Government intends that at most 35% efficiency should be required for CHP schemes to receive subsidies and possibly even less. This is just half the minimum figure of 70% set for biomass by the EU Directive on Renewable Energy, and will allow operators producing mostly electricity to secure subsidies.”
And of course, Forth Energy may well argue if they do come back with a new biomass proposal in Leith that this time it’s different.
Scottish Enterprise have poured in hundred’s of thousands of pounds of public subsidy to put together a new Masterplan for the docks – due to be published within weeks – with the aim of reconfiguring it so that it meets the needs of a firm like Gamesa, or Arriva.
No doubt Forth Energy will point out that both manufacturing firms have signed a Memorandum of Understanding underlining their commitment to investing somewhere on the Firth of Forth. And if they come to Leith, then it may be possible to argue that there will be a potential heat customer able to make use of the vast quantities of heat that a giant biomass plant might generate.
But just months ago, these manufacturers joined forces with others in the sector to warn Westminster that they may not invest at all, if London doesn’t sort out it’s subsidy plans for offshore wind.
This was followed up just a few weeks ago by a press release from the Scottish Government no less, urging Westminster to take action. Energy Minister Fergus Ewing again hinted that investment from Gamesa may be at risk, saying:
“Offshore wind has reached a watershed. The industry has enormous potential, and to realise this potential it is essential that investors have confidence.
“Over the past weeks I have spoken to many potential investors who say the uncertainty surrounding Electricity Market Reform is starting to affect their investment decisions.
“The time to reassure them is now. The UK Government must make clear their ongoing support for offshore wind and emulate the Scottish Government’s approach by setting a 2030 electricity decarbonisation target now, not in 2016 as planned under the Energy Bill..
“Offshore wind has the potential to raise UK GDP by 0.8 per cent, and we must seize this prize. The opportunities the industry present us – in terms of jobs, investment, stabilizing energy bills and reducing our carbon output – are too valuable to risk.”
Could Leith lose a major wind-turbine manufacturer, but gain a deeply unpopular power plant? It’s not a prospect that many in Edinburgh would view as a regeneration success.
There will still be a formal consultation period on the draft Local Development Plan.
When it opens, you may wish to submit a response calling for a better regulation of the type of development that will be permitted on the docks, and supporting the principle of genuinely decentralised, small-scale heat.