Construction work starts on £160m straw-fired power plant at Snetterton

Breaking the ground at the new Snetterton biomass power plant. From left: Kare Dupont, BWSC; Michael

Breaking the ground at the new Snetterton biomass power plant. From left: Kare Dupont, BWSC; Michael Wassell, Breckland Council; Colin Jones, BEAL; and Karen Algate, Eco2. - Credit: Submitted

Construction work has begun on a major straw-fired power plant at Snetterton which its developers say will improve the energy grid, boost local employment and offer a stable supply line for surrounding arable farmers.

BWSC biomass plant in Sleaford during construction (similar to the proposed plant at Snetterton)

BWSC biomass plant in Sleaford during construction (similar to the proposed plant at Snetterton) - Credit: Submitted

A ground-breaking ceremony was held by representatives from owners BWSC (Burmeister and Wain Scandinavian Contractor), developers Eco2 and Breckland Council in a field to the west of the A11 which will become home to the £160m Snetterton Renewable Energy Plant.

The developers claim the 44.2MW biomass burner will have the capacity to generate enough energy for 82,000 homes, and has the potential to become an electricity connectivity point for Snetterton Heath, where connectivity is currently poor.

The fuel will be 250,000 tonnes of baled straw per year, giving arable farmers a guaranteed buyer for their by-product over a 12-year contract period – although concerns have been raised that the accumulated tonnage needed by such plants across the region could reduce the availability of straw needed as bedding for livestock.

But the companies behind the project are convinced that there is enough surplus straw for the plant, which they said would create jobs and improve the energy grid alongside the recently-dualled A11, offering opportunities for further business growth.

Karen Algate, senior project manager for Eco2, said about 50 long-term contracts had already been agreed with farmers, which would account for 80pc of the supply.

'Most of the contracts will be in a 30-40 mile radius,' she said. 'It does not make sense for us to bring it in from much further away. They are on 12-year contracts and that gives the farmer the security that will allow them to invest in the machinery they need to deliver this huge quantity of straw.

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'It is a perfect location for us. It is based where the fuel is readily available and it can help stabilise the grid if we have got a big baseline plant like this.

'This one in particular has got fantastic transport links with the dualled A11, and no neighbours close by. Nobody wants to see fuel lorries queuing on residential roads.'

Colin Jones, general manager for BWSC East Anglia, said the site was chosen for its transport links and the availability of fuel. He said: 'The straw consumption is based on an average of what the yields should be per harvest. We'd keep a strategic stock of about 40,000 tonnes in the event that there is a bad harvest, so the plant will always be generating.

'The surveys are saying that there is something like 600,000 tonnes of surplus straw across the east coast. At the moment, the majority of this fuel (straw) is transported over to Holland and to other parts of Europe, because there are not the livestock farmers here to take it. That is why there is a surplus of straw here, because there is no market for it.'

The project was originally developed by Iceni Energy, which was given the green light to build the plant by Breckland Council in 2012. Iceni has since joined forces with Eco2 to take the project forward to financial close. The plant will be run by BWSC, which will own it in partnership with a Danish infrastructure fund and will oversee the construction process.

Michael Wassell, leader of Breckland Council, said: 'I'm absolutely delighted that construction of the biomass plant is now officially under way and am looking forward to the realisation of the benefits it is expected to bring for local people

'This is about opening up the area to businesses, and one of the restrictions here was the lack of power. Now, with the dualling of the A11, it is great that we will now have a new connection to the National Grid.'

The start of work at Snetterton coincides with proposals being revealed for another similar power plant in Norwich, as reported in yesterday's EDP.

That proposal, yet to be formally submitted to the city council, is for a plant burning straw pellets, transported in by train to the 30-acre Utilities site – a patch of wasteland between Thorpe Hamlet and Whitlingham.

There are already straw-fired plants in operation at places including Ely in Cambridgeshire and Sleaford in Lincolnshire.

The cumulative effect of such biomass plants has prompted concerns about the future availability of straw for livestock operations – and therefore its cost.

Clarke Willis, chief executive at buying group Anglia Farmers, said: 'My view is that Snetterton is possible with the current availability of straw, but for any further developments in the Eastern region there is not sufficient capacity to sustain it unless you start taking it from livestock farmers.'

Former pig farmer of the year Jimmy Butler, who has 2,000 free-range outdoor sows at Blythburgh, near Southwold, said there was a misconception about 'surplus' straw being available – as many arable farmers would incorporate it into their land to aid the soil's nutrient content.

'They (the energy companies) think that anything that's not being used as straw for livestock is available. They ignore the large number of arable farmers who do not want you on their land with your balers and loaders – they would rather incorporate it into the land, so it is not 'available'.

'We have been encouraged to put our sows outdoors and to breed our pigs free-range, so we use a lot more straw than the indoor boys. We have built a sustainable business on that, but then if the price of straw rises it makes us less competitive with the European product, and it will end up costing jobs. You are putting all that in jeopardy because the price of straw will inevitably go up – it is simple supply and demand.'