UEA AND ITS DISAPPEARING BIOMESS

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by Suzanne Jones

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.

(Biomass Energy Centre, UEA © Nigel Chadwick)

  • 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.

(© Dennis Gillbert / VIEW)

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 

10 thoughts on “UEA AND ITS DISAPPEARING BIOMESS

  1. Scott S – yes, it would have been better for them not to ‘try’ and saved £15M off student fees, or spent it on things that actually need doing around UEA. This wasn’t ‘private money’ (whatever that is – all money has an owner somewhere) it was public funds, and it sounds like it was obtained not for an experiment but to deliver a heating and power system – which they singularly failed to do. And by the way, why is it OK to waste ‘private money’? But perhaps we should all just collude with them in covering it up, to save their faces.

    Your point about student satisfaction surveys is equally fatuous – the reason it hasn’t affected them is probably because none of the students know about it because UEA has covered it up – which is kind of the point of the article – duh! Oh and thanks for telling us that UEA should have done their due diligence – I think we got that from the article but nice to get your confirmation.

    About the electrical sockets. you missed the point again my friend. The article isn’t saying that these alone made it the most energy efficient building in the UK, it was saying that this detail was symptomatic of UEA’s approach.

    If you want some more facts about it why don’t you ask UEA yourself. I wonder how far you’ll get. Still, you never know – from your arguments (and grammar) you sound like someone connected to the university yourself.

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  2. So, would it have been better for them to never have tried and carried on with burning natural gas as everyone else does? Ultimately this is private money which can be spent at they whimsy, apart from answering to the students who pay the university. Look up the UEA on student satisfaction and see if this is a problem. The 1M DEFRA grant would be granted with a known level of risk, so it’s not good this one failed but innovative projects will always be risky.

    Having said this, there could still be fault in the decision to go with a 3MW plant instead of a 1MW if real engineering or physical limitations have been ignored after being illustrated. Are there any more details about this apart from ‘ignored experienced engineers’ ultimately one solution to building a 3MW plant is to build 3x 1MW plant…. Assuming the UEA really did not not perform due diligence on the engineering firm, then this would be a stupid mistake on their part, so there could be fault there.

    Also, if DEFRA didn’t perform the correct due diligence on the project then they would be at fault.

    Nice commentry on how publicity works… I suppose you always go around telling people about your failures rather than successes?

    Interesting stab at the Enterprise Centre – there is no way that this building is being claimed to be the most efficient wherever simply because it has the fewest plug sockets. Here’s some simple maths: a laptop uses about 30-100w 100 plug sockets would therefore use 3- 10kW. I bet you have a 20kW boiler to heat your house – the enterprise cetre is probably 10x bigger than a normal house so ~200kW required if built in the same way as a house, plus lighting, and other consumers. The 10kW for plug sockets would be in the noise.

    I would assume there is some other stupid reason for asking for fewest plug sockets e.g build cost, maintenance cost etc.

    This arrival could have been more factual than sensationalist and allowed readers to draw their own conclusions… Or do you have another adjenda?

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    • Scott S thinks it’s okay to get ‘burnt’ in this way, hide the fact and then quickly hold out your begging bowl for more of the same from your students. He/she obviously has a burgeoning career ahead in Risk & Sustainability.

      By the way, typos always matter!

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  3. Another UEA apologist tries to stifle the debate. Looks like they are trying to write out Climategate from their history in the same way as this article shows they are doing for their biomess. We’ll soon find out there was never any such thing as Climategate and the environmental thought police will be tracking down anyone who says there was. Seeing how touchy they still are about it is a good indication of how close to the truth it was.

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  4. Glad to see the NR has already been pulled on this sentence -“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?”

    Every one of the multiple inquiries into climategate found there was no “suppression of data” – the entire episode was a set-up by climate-change-deniel obsessives, I’m surprised that NR – which seems to have good connections at UEA – doesn’t seem aware of this.

    Linking to a Guardian piece which features an FoI by climate-denial obsessive Graham Stringer (one of only 3 MPs to vote against the Climate Change Act in 2008) is also pretty dodgy. Is the NR setting itself up as another bogus “iconoclast” that rejects the science in favour of oil industry bullshit? That would be disappointing.

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    • Yeah, see this finding from the Executive Summary of the independent review of Climategate:

      ‘But we do find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of the CRU scientists and on the part of the UEA, who failed to recognise not only the significance of statutory requirements but also the risk to the reputation of the University and, indeed, to the credibility of UK climate science.’

      Para 15 in Section 1.3 of Independent Climate Change E-mails Review July 2010

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  5. Very good piece. Thanks!
    [Except for the mention of ‘Climategate’ (sic.): which was nothing but a criminal piece of snooping by climate-denying scumbags that uncovered virtually nothing of any interest or scandal-value. (Anyone who think that this hack was legit should ask themselves how they would like it if ALL their emails were made public.)]

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