Biomass going off the rails?

Credit to the Drax website for the photograph

It’s been a little while since I posted any thoughts on the site, and this one has been building a while.

As a company specialising in biomass, we’ve had a tough few years, as have many others in the industry. We are one of very few left trading from the heady days of what I call the biomass gold rush.

At first we had trouble convincing anybody that they would get paid by the government to heat their property, then it caught on a bit, and very shortly afterward we had the start of the degressions, which took the RHI payback down every quarter, which resulted in a rush to deadline, followed by a lull at the beginning of the following quarter. It made scheduling installations a complete nightmare. That lasted a couple of years. Then the oil price dropped like a stone, which when added to the degressions made biomass harder and harder to sell. To add insult to injury, there was no shortage of idiots installing all sorts of rubbish boilers, and some installing good boilers badly, which combined to give the industry a bad name. Triple whammy.

Now, to cap it all off, the price of biomass fuel (particularly pellets) is rising faster than it should. The reasons for this are numerous, such as Verdo shutting down their British pellet making plant, a massive warehouse getting flooded destroying thousands of tonnes of pellet, increased transport costs as the price of diesel rose. But perhaps the most annoying reason is that the Drax power station in Yorkshire is now taking a big chunk of the available wood pellet to replace coal in four of its six generators. Great news, right?

Well, no. I don’t think so.

And here’s why: These old conventional power stations, by government figures, are between 25% and 50% efficient. They are this bad because of all the heat that goes up the cooling towers into the atmosphere, and because a fairly large percentage of the power created is lost in transmission. Roll back 100 years and you would find in the early days of the power grid there was a small power station around practically every corner, and guess what — they weren’t much less efficient than the massive coal-fired power stations that replaced them.

Look at where we are now. Solar farms, wind turbines, CHP ‘combined heat and power’ stations. Keep this up and we will be back where we were before, with a power station around every corner, but this time the efficiency is far greater than what can be achieved by Drax. Typical CHP efficiencies range from 60 to 80%, and some are higher. This is getting on for double the efficiency of a conventional power station, so why waste wood pellets, a natural and finite commodity, by burning them in an old coal-fired power station, when they could be used in better, small scale power stations? Why drive up the price of the fuel by making it scarce, just to burn it in a wasteful fashion? I think we have to have a conscience about how we treat our natural resources, and this, to my mind at least, is a well intentioned mistake. At first glance it looks like a good idea, but it’s not as good as it seems.