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Another important step on the renewables journey

Air products tees valley

The go-ahead on MGT Teesside’s Tees Renewable Energy Plant (REP) announced in August is fantastic news for the region and for those of us who champion sustainable technologies.

Based near Teesport, it will be one of the big­gest biomass-powered combined heat and power (CHP) plants in the world. With an investment of £650m to build and around £20m local spend during operation, Tees REP will contribute to the economic growth of the region by creating 600 jobs during con­struction and about 100 jobs during operation. This will help to reduce the area’s unemploy­ment rate, which is proportionally higher in the Tees Valley area.

Sourced from sustainable forestry – new forest growth that will always replace the one harvested – and using low-value products from timber land, Tees REP will produce about 2.3TWh a year of low-carbon electricity to pow­ering 600,000 homes. Lower price electricity per kWh can be achieved and everyone will benefit from greater affordability.

But why is this plant being built at Teesside?

First, in my view, is that, because most of the biomass will be imported, the project will ben­efit from the Teesport nearby. Second is because Northern Powergrid, present in the region with about 81,000km of electricity cables, will be able to distribute the electricity produced by Tees REP. And third is because the area is home to Teesside University, which is already heavily involved in research and development (R&D) and workforce training in sustainable energy projects.

There are huge opportunities for the univer­sity to directly contribute to Tees REP. It would like to work with MGT Teesside on biomass technology and train its workforce – not least through developing short courses to tailor and to meet the REP’s substantial human resources demand. It is a great opportunity for Teesside University to get involved and make a success of this collaboration.

“CHP plants can be built at different scales to provide heat and electricity at affordable prices, as long as they use renewable feedstocks sustainably”

I am confident that Tees REP will be success­ful: you only have to look at Sembcorp on Tees­side, which produces heat and power for the Wilton International manufacturing site.

There are already similar biomass plants in the UK, with capacities varying from 2.5MW (based on energy crops and forestry residue) to hundreds of megawatts (based on wood). I see the Tees REP ultimately providing a secure energy supply, green energy, lower energy prices, much needed jobs and economic growth.

I also only see more of these plants emerging across the UK. There is a need to use alternative technologies to reduce global warming emissions and their harmful effects on health, environment and climate. The UK renewable energy target is 15% by 2020 and this will increase demand for biomass plants.

So what needs to happen to make biomass plants more commonplace? From a scientific point of view, applying process intensification techniques to the whole plant – from the boiler to electrical transformers via the steam turbine, generator, condensers and filters. This will lead to increased efficiency and to lower prices per energy unit.

CHP plants can be built at different scales to provide heat and electricity at affordable prices, as long as they use renewable feedstocks in a sustainable manner.

Further investment in R&D is also needed. For the past 10 years I have been working on a number of research projects around the devel­opment of sustainable technologies, including the conversion of biomass and municipal solid waste into fuel. Biomass/waste, being a readily available renewable energy source that reduces sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide emissions, is an extremely attractive option as a fuel for power generation and as a raw material to be converted into transport fuel.

The ultimate goal is zero waste/zero emis­sions, and we are not far away from achieving that. Improved catalysts and processes for the conversion of a range of feedstocks including biomass, waste plastics, waste oil and sludge from wastewater treatment plants have been designed, developed and, most importantly, proven.

It is an ongoing journey, but the world urgently needs to find alternative fuel supplies, so we all have a responsibility to provide some solutions. The thumbs up to Tees REP is clearly an important step.

Maria Olea is a professor in chemical engi­neering and catalysis at Teesside University


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