Biomass Power Generation — [Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:59 pm on 20th March 2013.

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Photo of Jackie Doyle-Price Jackie Doyle-Price Conservative, Thurrock 2:59 pm, 20th March 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Main. It is also a pleasure to follow excellent, well-informed speeches by two strong advocates for biomass and its potential for power generation.

I have long felt that biomass was the Cinderella of renewable energy. Although lots of subsidies have been thrown at wind and solar, the development of biomass capacity has been rather left to flourish by itself. As a good Conservative, with a clear understanding of the limits of Government, I feel it is probably better off for that. However, I am really grateful to my hon. Friend Nigel Adams for securing the debate, as it is high time that the potential of biomass generation is fully recognised by Government, so that sufficient effort can be made to secure a regulatory environment with the certainty that my hon. Friend Ian Swales referred to, which facilitates its expansion.

I know the Government believe that biomass can play an important role in the future UK energy mix, and that is set out in the bioenergy strategy. They recognise that it is a dispatchable technology that has the ability to produce low-carbon energy quickly and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty pointed out, in response to demand—that is, it is not dependent on weather conditions that can affect other renewable technologies, such as, most notably, wind.

I am proud to represent Tilbury, which is in my constituency and has what is currently the world’s largest dedicated biomass power station. The history of Tilbury is interesting, because the power station was until very recently coal-fired, and it has been generating sufficient power for the whole of Essex for the past 50 years. However, the large combustion plant directive finished off Tilbury as a coal-fired power station, and I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will be very aware of how much impact the directive is having on our power generation capability. That really brings into stark relief the need for more certainty around the regulation and future environment for biomass, so that we can unlock investment in what is a very good technology for generating low-carbon power.

At its peak, Tilbury employed 750 people—today it employs 250, all in very highly skilled jobs—and it generated more than 1,000 MW, which is enough to power 1 million homes. In its 50 years of operation, it never breached its environmental licence. That prompts the question, although we implement EU directives with very good intentions, in terms of reducing emissions, when we look at the detail of the impact, are we really hitting the right things when we are looking at tackling climate change and environmentalism? I just put that out there. It is not unusual for the European Union to get things very badly wrong. As I said, the directive had the effect of finishing off Tilbury, despite the fact that Tilbury only ever breached its emissions limits when the A13 was full of traffic, which tells us exactly where the air contamination was coming from.

Faced with the need to close the plant, RWE npower—the owners—decided to be imaginative, and instead of running on coal until they had to close, they decided to make the groundbreaking decision to explore the potential for conversion, so that they could learn by doing and transfer that learning to developing biomass in future. What they did was not only groundbreaking but risky, and they deserve congratulations for their pioneering work on developing the ability to convert coal-fired stations to biomass. As a result of that conversion, Tilbury is now the world’s largest dedicated biomass power station, having burned coal for the last time in March 2011. I lament the departure of coal, but it is still exciting to witness what has been happening at Tilbury.

The station burns wood pellets, and in response to the intervention by Graham Stringer, those pellets come by ship from America. That is, as he will probably recognise, a sustainable way of transporting them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar mentioned, where we have power station infrastructure located at portside and the ability to transport by ship, it makes that method of power generation very sustainable.

The remainder of the hours that Tilbury has under the large combustion plant directive means that it can only generate from biomass until next year. It seems crazy that, having converted from coal to biomass, we still have to close the plant. However, RWE has big ambitions and wants to invest in a new facility to replace the existing station, having learned many lessons from the conversion. We are hopeful that the necessary permissions will be achieved and that the project can go forward, so that Tilbury can continue to keep Essex’s lights on.

It is fair to say that the conversion is less efficient than coal, but it is still pretty efficient. As I said, under coal-fired generation, the plant generated more than 1,000 MW, and now it generates 750 MW. That is a significant contribution to the national grid, and much more than the wind turbines that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty referred to. The conversion has, however, had a significant environmental impact, with a 70% reduction in greenhouse gases. That illustrates just how powerful converting existing infrastructure could be in terms of meeting our objectives on climate change.

During the conversion, RWE was faced with many challenges—technical, operational, and health and safety—but much has been learnt and the company would be very happy to share its expertise with the Government and more widely. The operation of Tilbury to run on sustainable biomass has had a big impact on the UK’s ability to meet its targets. That illustrates the potential of biomass generation to give a new lease of life to existing power stations, which, without conversion, would have to be decommissioned, but are sitting on top of connections to the national grid. As we look at further investment in energy capacity, connections to the grid are an important expense to deal with.

With over a third of our existing generating capacity due to close by the end of this decade, clearly, more investment in renewable and low-carbon technology is required—and quickly—so that, in future, we have a secure energy supply, a lower-carbon energy supply and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty said most eloquently, an affordable energy supply. That is why we need to unlock the supply challenges quickly, because without increasing supply, the impact will be on price, and our most vulnerable consumers will be hit. We need, therefore, to tackle the problem.

As I mentioned earlier, the beauty of Tilbury as the location for a dedicated biomass station was its suitability for transporting the wood pellets by ship, as that made it particularly sustainable. As my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty mentioned, there has been a lot of misinformation about the sustainability of biomass generation, with much scaremongering that burning wood pellets will mean the end of our forests. However, nothing could be further from the truth. I have had conversations with representatives of the forestry industry in the United States, and they are very excited and keen to satisfy the demand that this country might have for further biomass generation. It was suggested in some briefings only this week that Government plans would involve the burning of up to six times more wood than the entire UK forestry harvest, but that is totally misleading, because we are looking beyond our tiny island for supply. It can be achieved in a very sustainable way.

The ability to tap into that demand has given sustainable forestry a whole new lease of life. As we have increased the recycling of paper, the demand for forest products has altered, which means that there is a desire to look at new sources of demand. Over time, that will only accelerate, so I really do not believe that the wood panel industry has anything to worry about, in terms of the future of its supply.