Do you remember when Forth Energy proposed a giant, and deeply unpopular, biomass power station on Leith docks?
At the time, Greener Leith objected to the proposal largely on the basis that it we felt it was highly unlikely to ever operate efficiently enough to deliver meaningful carbon savings – even though it would qualify for millions of pounds of public subsidy for “low carbon” energy.
Although the developer, Forth Energy has since withdrawn the Leith proposal it still has active planning applications for similar plants in Dundee, Rosyth and Grangemouth. The Grangemouth project has been considered by a public enquiry although it is unknown when the result will be announced.
In the meantime, the Scottish Government conducted a consultation into the way biomass subsidies for low carbon energy operate – and after doing some research, and listening to a lots of consultation responses, including our own, Fergus Ewing announced yesteday in parliament his Government’s conclusions.
Here’s what he said about biomass:
“On biomass generation, we asked for views on whether to restrict or remove support for large-scale wood-fuelled electricity-only and combined heat and power stations. A significant majority responded in favour of such restrictions, although others argued that biomass generation has an important role to play in meeting Scotland’s electricity and heat targets.
“I accept that role, but I also believe that our concerns over competition for the finite supply of wood and our concerns about the strategic value of biomass heat over electricity merit the introduction of a new control.
“I am therefore proposing that wood-fuelled stations with a total installed capacity that is greater than 10MW and that are not good quality combined heat and power stations will not be eligible for ROCs after 2013. That will not apply to stations that commission after April 2013, but which received consent or planning permission before our consultation was published.
“Our vision for biomass is clear: it is for small and sustainable stations that are close to available local supplies and operate as efficiently as possible.”
In response to a further question from Highlands MSP Mary Scanlon who largely welcomed the new biomas subsidy proposals he added:
“We have listened carefully to the interests of the timber sector in the broadest sense.
“A huge number of people are employed in that sector in Scotland, particularly in the area that she and I jointly represent. Leading Scottish companies such as BSW Timber Group—or Brownlie’s—in Boat of Garten and Fort William; John Gordon & Son in Nairn; and James Jones & Sons in Forres and many sawmills throughout the country have been concerned that very large-scale biomass for electricity only would consume much of the limited and finite source of timber in Scotland, and in so doing would receive a subsidy that is not available to sawmills. Of course, as Mary Scanlon well knows, Norbord has a substantial plant near Inverness.
“It is fair to say that we listened very carefully indeed to the views of those companies and to the views of the other respondees to the consultation—there were 139 in total. We also listened carefully to the views of members of all parties who wrote to us to raise environmental concerns about large-scale biomass for electricity only. We took all that into account; the preponderance of views that were expressed to us from representatives and in the consultation said that a 10MW cap is appropriate.
That will still allow smaller-scale community biomass schemes to operate successfully in the Highlands.”
However, although the new rules are tighter, in that large biomass plants must now use a proportion of the heat that they generate before they will qualify for subsidy, they still allow large biomass plants -over the 10MW cap – to receive subsidy if they operate at relatively low fuel efficiencies.
This is because the guidelines which define “Good Quality CHP” contain a specific clause which allow larger plants to operate at lower efficiences whilst still qualifying for renewable energy subsidies.
In the Greener Leith consultation response we called on the government to link subsidies for biomass power to a minimum 70% efficiecy, as this is the threshold recommended by European Union directives on renewable energy.
This means that if Forth Energy can find a large heat customer in Leith – for example the proposed wind turbine manufacturing plant on the docks – then a new Leith biomass proposal could re-appear and could qualify for subsidy.
Of course if a new plant were good enough to qualify for subsidy in this new regime, then any new proposal would be better than the orginal plant proposed by Forth Energy. But the question remains whether it would be good enough.
Indeed, another MSP Angus MacDonald asked Fergus Ewing what the implications of his announcement were for the Grangemouth biomass plant proposed by Forth Energy.
And although Fergus Ewing qualified his statement by first pointing out he could not comment on specific projects he went on to say:
“I have already explained in my response to Mary Scanlon the general thinking behind our decision on biomass, and putting the cap at 10MW. However, the cap applies to projects that involve producing electricity only—in other words, using biomass only to generate electricity—and does not apply where there is combined heat and power.
“Where there is combined heat and power and the heat can be used for industrial purposes to perhaps assist a large user of heat to defray and reduce energy bills, that provides an additional valuable contribution—potentially extremely valuable—especially to companies that currently have very high bills and which would seek thereby to reduce them.
“We intend to hold a brief consultation on the precise details. That is a chance for stakeholders to put final arguments on, for example, the size of the cap. The 10MW capacity ceiling was based on work that was conducted for us by the Forestry Commission’s forest research, North Energy and Xero Energy Ltd.
“…the last thing that I will say is that the proposal does not put an automatic halt to any project. Generators of any size can still proceed if they can—as they should—capture and use the heat.”
As it would appear that there will be a further, additional round of consultation about the rules governing the operation of the biomass subsidy cap, it looks as though Greener Leith may need to restate many of the arguments we made in the last round of consultation.