An island with relatively sparse domestic energy resources, the United Kingdom has been experimenting mostly with wind power as it attempts to expand its renewable energy portfolio. Indeed, this December, an average of 5.3 percent of the U.K.’s electricity came from wind power, with a record high of 12.2 percent of energy demand derived from wind power on December 28.

But the challenge of balancing the grid with an increasing amount of intermitent power may have led the U.K.’s Department of Environment and Climate Change (DECC) to begin seriously exploring other options. This month, the DECC granted permission for energy and gas company E.On Climate and Renewables to construct a 150-megawatt (MW) biomass plant that will be fueled from imported virgin wood, dedicated crops and local waste wood. The plant will be located at the Royal Portbury Dock in the Port of Bristol in North Somerset.

biomass plant
image via Shutterstock

E.On applied to the DECC for permission to build the plant in August 2009, but the application was delayed as the DECC weighed impacts on the local community and ecosystem. Among the DECC’s concerns listed in the department’s final decision letter were likely noise and visual pollution plant construction would cause to the local community, the need for E.On to safely remove waste ash from the plant during operation, the concern that the plant would be located too close to a nearby fuel importation facility and the larger concern that biomass generation might be less sustainable than other types of clean energy systems.

In addition, the DECC wrote, “a condition should be included to ensure there is no possibility of  conversion to “another less acceptable type of fuel.” Ultimately, the U.K. secretary of state decided that  “any additional adverse visual impacts resulting specifically from the development are outweighed by its benefits,” according to the DECC decision letter.

In publicly announcing the decision to give E.On permission to build, the DECC lauded the installation as an opportunity to create up to 325 local temporary construction jobs and up to 35 full-time maintenance jobs during plant operation.

But the DECC’s worry that the plant may be less than sustainable may be very real. The plant will use approximately 1.2 million tons of biomass fuel annally, 70 percent of which E.On predicts will be imported to the country by sea. While the department noted concern with transporting too much fuel on local roads, a larger concern might be if the country gains any green benefit from the project. If 70 percent of the plant’s fuel is imported, it remains to be seen how much the country will gain overall from the “domestic” green energy.

image via E.ON UK – Biomass

To address that concern, the government has introduced sustainability criteria for biomass and biogas facilities, with a rule that the plant must show a 60 percent greenhouse gas emissions saving relative to a similar fossil fuel plant over the lifecycle of the plant.

The plant is far from the U.K.’s first large-scale biomass plant. Since November 2007, the DECC has approved 11 biomass plants, ranging from 53 to 350 MW in size. Other initiatives beyond wind and offshore wind have included carbon capture technology as well as installation of tidal and wave power devices.

For the time being the DECC has concluded, according to its website, that the benefits of biomass, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions, low cost and reliable around-the-clock production as compared with other renewables, the possibility of an alternative to fossil fuels such as oil that carry national security risks, and the creation of new jobs, all outweigh the generally unsustainable model of importing biomass fuel.