Thurrock biomass extension angers campaigners

Air quality campaigners have criticised a decision by Thurrock council last night (February 14) to grant planning permission for modifications to a biomass power plant.

Planned modifications could see Tilbury Biomass Power Plant in Essex, currently set to close this year, remain open for another 12 to 15 years.

Tilbury Power Station in Essex

Tilbury Power Station in Essex

The decision has angered environmental campaigners, who claim that high air pollution such as particulate matter PM2.5 from the plant has a serious impact on resident’s health.

More than 500 people sent representations to the council opposing the plans through the website of environmental campaign group Biofuelwatch.

The group’s Duncan Law claimed plant owners RWE were “cynically maximising profits at the expense of local people’s and the planet’s health” and that burning wood at the biomass plant emitted more PM2.5 than the coal burning which used to take place at the plant. He also said that current particulate levels around Tilbury already exceed World Health Organisation recommended levels.

However, a spokeswoman for RWE said: “The power station is highly regulated and has never exceeded any emissions standards in 40 years. When the plant was converted to biomass from coal in 2011, emissions levels actually substantially reduced.”

She said that the impact assessment for the plant considered PM2.5 emissions but ruled them out as insignificant on the basis of the Environment Agency’s H1 risk assessment framework.

Thurrock Council Environmental Health made no objections on air quality to the modifications, stating in the planning application that all the modelled short-term and long-term air quality objectives for sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are “well below the limit values”.

The Tilbury plant was originally set to close this year after it ‘opted out’ of an EU Directive that limits emissions of certain pollutants from large combustion plants (2001/80/EC). Its current allocation of a further 20,000 operation hours, granted in 2008, is expected to be used up by mid-2013.

But at a meeting of the planning committee last night, councillors granted planning permission to two applications for the plant that were designed to ensure it complies with the EU Directive – one for offshore modifications and one for onshore modifications.

The modification will enable the plant, situated on the River Thames, to operate beyond its current allowance for at least another 12-15 years.

Permitting approval

However, energy firm RWE, which runs the plant, is still seeking some investment and will need permitting approval from the Environmental Agency (EA), which regulates industrial emissions to air, for the modifications to go ahead.

A spokeswoman for the firm said it expects to be granted approval from the EA within the next six months. She added that the plant will still need to close this year for the modifications to take place before it can reopen again in future.

The existing Tilbury B power station began full operation in 1968 and was coal fired with a capacity of 1428 MW. In 2011, it was converted from coal to 100% biomass fuel providing 750MW of generating capacity, which according to RWE resulted in ‘significantly’ lower emissions of nitrogen oxides, suphur dioxide and ash. The planned modifications look set to increase capacity to 870MW.

Tilbury Power Station manager, Nigel Staves, said: “I am pleased that the Thurrock Council planning committee has resolved to grant RWE planning permission for the future development of Tilbury Power Station as a dedicated biomass-fuelled power plant. This planning permission will allow the power station to be modified to meet the operational and environmental standards required for a new biomass power plant.”

He added: “The modifications include the installation of two new silos for storing the biomass pellets and upgrading the existing fuel handling facilities and cooling water intake. This is part of the consent and permitting process that is required in order to modify, reopen and continue to operate the power station after it closes later this year.”

A spokesman from Thurrock council said: “Tilbury B is a long established power station which has been fuelled by biomass for the last year. The planning applications related to various works for the unloading, movement and storage of biomass fuel, and were supported by a full environmental impact assessment which the council took into account when it made its decisions.”

The spokesman added: “The conversion works to the station itself will need to meet new environmental standards and before the station can operate consents from the Environment Agency and other statutory bodies will need to be obtained.”

Defra minister Richard Benyon MP revealed in parliament last week (February 6) that the health impacts from particulate matter PM2.5 as a result of biomass plant emissions are expected to cost the UK £215 million in 2020 (see airqualitynews.com story).