You may have seen my previous article ‘Generation Park and UEA biomess’ for The Norwich Radical (29.08.15), which told the tale of UEA’s five year struggle to get their biomass energy centre to work. Given their advocacy of the current Generation Park Norwich proposals, I now wish to examine how the university has dealt with this failure and the double standards it reveals in their approach to environmental questions.
But before doing so, let me briefly recap and update some of the key facts of the case with new information that has come to light:
- The project began in 2009 with the aim of using wood biomass to provide heat and power through gasification for the whole UEA campus. It was proudly heralded as putting UEA at the forefront of environmentally friendly energy generation, using a renewable fuel source that would cut CO2 emissions by a projected 34%.
- Biomass gasification is still a largely unproven technology. Rather than opting for a small-scale unit (c.1MW power output) they ignored the advice of experienced engineers and tried to build the biggest gasifier of its kind in the UK (c.3MW output). There are clear parallels here with their approach to Generation Park Norwich where they are supporting proposals to build the largest straw-burning biomass incinerator in the world.
- The unit was originally due to open in 2010. Having taken two years to build it they then spent the next three trying to get it to work. It has never run for more than 30 minutes continuously nor produced anything more than a token amount of power. It is now effectively dead.
- The capital costs of the project, as disclosed in UEA’s audited accounts from 2009-2012 were £10.5M, including a £1M DEFRA grant and other renewable energy subsidies. No capital costs are reported from 2013 onwards.
- Additional costs associated with the unit, such as maintenance, staff, fuel etc are not included in the capital expenditure figures but are estimated to be in the region of £5M over the project’s five year life cycle (2009-2014), giving a total project cost of £15.5M. This must now be written off.
- When UEA sought recompense from the engineering consultant for the project’s failure, they found they had not done their due diligence correctly and no costs could be recovered.
- A whole new facility was built around the unit, (pictured above) including a designated parking area, a special crane to unload the wood supplies and rest rooms for the work force that were specially hired to run the facility.
- All the staff have now been made redundant and the building (which is significant) is like a ghost town. Christmas decorations are being kept where the wood for the incinerator should have been stored.
- They have since promoted the project manager to be their Head of Risk & Sustainability.
The whole of UEA’s power-generation has now reverted to (non-renewable) natural gas. Their 2014 Environmental Report says that they have purchased new gas-fired boilers to fill the gap in their energy supplies which they say will save them £1M a year in energy costs. There is no mention of the failure of the biomass project.
UEA are publicly promoting one thing for Norwich, whilst privately doing something very different when it comes to its own energy supplies
This is a very different story from the one that UEA is advocating for the people of Norwich. Here they are arguing that in order to meet our energy needs and carbon reduction targets, we should switch to using biomass and get rid of our gas-fired domestic boilers in favour of a promised district heating network which would run off the incinerator. UEA are publicly promoting one thing for Norwich, whilst privately doing something very different when it comes to its own energy supplies.
The above information comes from impeccable sources. It has been obtained in the teeth of outright opposition from the university, which has twice refused Freedom of Information requests to release details of the project and have explicitly ruled out any compromise in this matter. The project has also been air-brushed out of their Sustainable Ways timeline, which charts the history of their environmental initiatives since 2005.
It is not hard to understand why – it would hardly enhance their credibility in obtaining backers for their Generation Park Norwich proposals, nor bolster their jealously guarded reputation as a leader in utilising ‘green technology’, for which they continue to receive numerous environmental grants and subsidies.
To be fair, they have been frank about this, stating in this Freedom of Information request that:
“The release of technical and other data related to the operation of the project and commercial decisions taken would have a chilling effect on the development of new low-carbon energy projects in the future, both for the University and commercial partners. The legitimate economic interests of both UEA and our past and prospective partner organisations would be adversely affected by this chilling effect because it would potentially damage negotiations, technology development and would harm potential investment in the project.”
What does it say about the probity of an academic institution that is only now recovering from the damage caused to its reputation by the Climategate accusations of suppressing data to suit its own ends in the environmental arena? Furthermore, it calls into serious question what, in connection with the Generation park proposals, Professor Trevor Davies calls “UEA’s renowned expertise in these areas”. UEA has spent the last five years garnering credit in academic and media circles from its biomass project. Indeed, they are still doing so; for example the Guardian’s 2016 student guide states that UEA “prides itself on being at the forefront of green awareness, and is meeting its energy needs via its on-campus biomass generating plant.” Yet this combined heat and power plant has never and will never be operational, and £15.5M has been wasted in the process.
Perhaps this culture of hypocrisy is best summed up in a little example from UEA’s latest venture in environmental technology, The Enterprise Centre as it is officially known or the ‘Hay Barn’ as local people call it.
The building, recently completed at a cost of (wait for it) £5M is supposedly the most energy efficient in the country, with walls built from recycled bales of hay. One of the reasons its energy consumption is so low is that UEA specifically asked for as few electrical sockets in the building as possible. That’s great for UEA but not so good if you’re a student trying to do some work in the building.
We can be very sure that, had their biomass experiment been a success, UEA’s publicity machine would have swung into ‘full spin’ mode just as effectively as it has for the ‘Hay Barn’. They would have been only too pleased to supply details as evidence in support of the Generation Park proposals. But transparency, it seems, does not cut both ways at UEA. Having turned into an embarrassing and damaging failure, they are now doing everything they can to write it out of their history. It is fast becoming the project that never was. The biomess is disappearing in a puff of smoke.
Featured Image ‘The Enterprise Centre’ © Dennis Gillbert / VIEW