uea 3

by Suzanne Jones

Further to my previous comments on the complete failure of UEA’s biomass gasifier at a cost of  £10M+ (incl. £1M DEFRA grant, totally wasted), readers might be interested to read the independent report from Adapt Commercial Ltd, commissioned by UEA in 2014, after they finally accepted that the project was never going to deliver.

I requested the disclosure of this report under Freedom of Information (FOI) regulations. Predictably, UEA fought tooth and nail not to release it, but were overruled when I appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

Just a brief reminder of the background to the ‘biomess’ fiasco:

  • In 2008 UEA decided to commission Refgas to install a biomass gasifier that would convert wood chips into synthetic gas and so provide heat and power for the whole campus. It was supposed to be operational within a year, but in fact never ran continuously for more than 30 minutes.
  • In 2014, after five years spent trying to get it to work, the project was finally abandoned and the University reverted to using conventional natural gas boilers for their heat and power.
  • The biomass gasifier cost £8M and with associated installation costs (new buildings etc) the total project cost came to over £10M.
(Biomass Energy Centre, UEA © Nigel Chadwick)

(Biomass Energy Centre, UEA © Nigel Chadwick)

The independent report’s findings are damning; it shows a culture driven by over-ambition and the desire to be seen as the leading ‘low-carbon’ university in the country, if not the world. In pursuit of this, normal procurement and contract procedures were overridden; there was an almost complete lack of risk management; there were numerous governance failures and a woeful lack of project management discipline.

Here are some key quotes from the report:

  • ‘Prior to the project, UEA Estates were under pressure to find new ways to reduce carbon emissions’. (2.2.)
  • ‘…the Estates team appear to have been driven by a need to meet a timescale to qualify for a DEFRA grant’. (2.4)
  • ‘…..the very high risk associated with the technology of this project was not understood by the University or the Project Board. The decision making seems to have been driven by considerations of either time or cost, but rarely if ever by risk.’ (2.5)
  • ‘This report makes clear recommendations for next steps with the gasifier project, and for wider reform of the project governance of future capital projects. The panel advocates that these are addressed at the highest level in the University in a timely manner’.  (3.1)
  • The panel is sceptical about whether Refgas [the appointed engineers] had appropriate knowledge and experience of gasifiers to ever successfully undertake the project’  (8.1)
  • ‘ … no risk identified of “untried technology”, no obvious technical expert engaged, no project assurance on what was (and should have been recognised at the time) as a high risk project.’ (15.4)
  • ‘….no independent assurance of the project and no overarching internal assurance either’ (15.7)
  • ‘…no evidence of testing or challenging the assumptions around the business case’ (15.8)
  • ‘…..there seems to have been no consideration of the possible scenario that a new building could be designed to accommodate a process that does not work’. (16.3)
  • ‘….lack of due diligence for this project’ (16.6)
  • ‘Simple administrative procedures for managing project information were not followed’ (16.7)
  • ‘…no proper “feasibility study” or recognition of “untried technology” as a constraint within the brief for this project’ (16.8)
  • ‘….it is not clear from the project papers who was leading the project at a senior executive level’ (16.9) 

Read the full report here

(University of East Anglia)

(University of East Anglia)

When the news of the gasifier’s failure broke in the local and national press earlier this year, having first been revealed in the The Norwich Radical in August 2015, Clive Lewis (Norwich South MP) said;

 “These are large sums of money which ultimately comes from you and me and which could conceivably have been spent on more popular and pressing concerns. So it is absolutely right to insist on proper scrutiny and accountability for every pound. If the university has carelessly frittered away our money then they should be held to account….”

Other than the Project Director, who has since left the University, it is not clear that anyone from the University’s senior leadership team (past or present) has accepted responsibility for the catalogue of failings detailed in Adapt’s report, or that the ‘wider reform of the project governance of future capital projects’ has actually taken place.

Other than the Project Director … it is not clear that anyone from the University’s senior leadership team (past or present) has accepted responsibility for the catalogue of failings

Of course, at the same time as fronting the gasifier project, Professor Trevor Davies was simultaneously pushing UEA’s Generation Park biomass proposals for the whole of Norwich. In previous articles in The Norwich Radical I have highlighted governance failures and lack of due diligence which fatally undermined that project and led to it eventually going bust earlier this year with debts of more than £3M.

Some of the parallels between the two projects are striking; the lack of independent scrutiny of the technical data supplied by UEA through its carbon reduction company CRED; the absence of any rigorous testing of the financial viability of the scheme (in spite of consulting engineers Buro Happold recommending exactly that way back in 2007); and the apparent lack of any formal risk management of what was an extremely risky scheme.

These ‘green flops’ (as The Times called them) seem to demonstrate endemic shortcomings in UEA’s leadership and governance structures. One wonders how many other capital projects from recent years e.g. ‘UEA London’ (closed having cost £Ms) and even ‘successes’ like their multi-million pound ‘Enterprise Centre’ were similarly mismanaged.

These ‘green flops’ (as The Times called them) seem to demonstrate endemic shortcomings in UEA’s leadership and governance structures.

Perhaps the final irony is that the Generation Park scheme, although bankrupt with creditors having to accept a paltry 30% of the money they are owed, is still being talked of by Professor Davies as a ‘viable scheme’ and one that could be resuscitated if Government subsidies are increased for biomass power generation.

It seems that the lessons of their biomess have yet to be learned.

Featured image via UEA


  1. This is a classic example why the average member of the General public does not believe most things that so called academics and experts tell us !! I attended the first meeting at the Thorpe Hamlet church where the so called expert prof Davies did a presentation …..I would not trust that fellow to be capable of running a newspaper delivery round on a sunday morning !!!………he is a complete and utter joke !!!
    I feel sorry for his students at the UEA he should be dismissed !!


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