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Confidential report reveals string of blunders over University of East Anglia’s abandoned biomass plant

The Biomass plant at the UEA. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The Biomass plant at the UEA. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

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A previously confidential internal report into the University of East Anglia’s £10.5m biomass power plant, which never worked properly, has revealed the project was marred by a string of failings, including not understanding the risks of the scheme.

UEA’s ‘regret” over scheme’s failings

The University of East Anglia said it had “regret” over the failings of the project.

A spokesman said: “The university commissioned this report from a panel of independent experts in order to learn lessons from this project.

“The project held out considerable promise for saving energy costs and reducing the university’s carbon footprint. However, despite the best of intentions, this project failed to deliver on its objectives.

We do regret the failings that were made and, as a result, we have adopted more robust governance processes, a more risk-averse approach to new projects, and are focusing on our core mission of delivering world-class research and teaching.

“The biomass building itself houses one of our gas-powered combined heat and power engines, which in a typical year helps generate 70pc of the electricity used by the university, provides heating to City Academy Norwich, and contributes to significant year-on-year reductions in carbon emissions.”

Refgas said the report was “very one sided and biased” and the company had sold six systems based on the same principle as the UEA’s one.

They said the report by Adapt made no reference to a report and recommendations which Refgas had submitted before the UEA took over the final commissioning.

And the highly critical independent report into a project, which had been hailed as key to cut the UEA’s carbon emissions, but was never run continuously and was abandoned in 2014, stated:

• The UEA was “driven” by a need to meet a timescale to qualify for a DEFRA grant and bypassed normal procedures

• Decision making was driven by time and cost, rarely by risk

• There was “a lack of due diligence” around the scheme

Flashback to 2008, when the UEA's then vice chancellor Bill MacMillan laid the foundations of the biomass plant. Picture: James Bass.Flashback to 2008, when the UEA's then vice chancellor Bill MacMillan laid the foundations of the biomass plant. Picture: James Bass.

• There was no proper “feasibility study” or recognition of “untried technology” as a constraint within the brief for the project

• The panel was sceptical about whether the engineers had appropriate knowledge and experience of gasifiers to successfully undertake the project

The biomass plant - which would have seen woodchip used to produce power - was announced in 2007. Contractor Refgas was picked and the technology seen as key to reducing carbon emissions at the UEA, while increasing the amount of electricity generated on campus.

However, despite £10.5m being spent on capital costs alone, the gasification process in the scheme never worked as intended.

Say No to Generation Park protest at Norwich City Hall.
Picture: ANTONY KELLYSay No to Generation Park protest at Norwich City Hall. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

And a Freedom Of Information request has shed new light on the project, unearthing a report into the troubled scheme by Adapt Commercial Ltd.

The request was submitted by Suzanne Jones, who has campaigned against the £370m Generation Park near Thorpe St Andrew, also backed by the UEA.

That scheme was withdrawn this year, but Prof Trevor Davies - a former pro-vice chancellor for research, enterprise and engagement at UEA, who was also involved in the biomass plant project - has said he is keen to revive it in the future.

The UEA initially refused to release the 2014 report, but, after Mrs Jones complained to the information commissioner, the institution was ordered to provide it.

The report states that, while there was “logic” behind the UEA’s decision to select a biogas gasification plant, on the advice of an independent consultant, the technology was new and “unproven”.

The report said: “Once the decision was taken, the estates team appear to have been driven by a need to meet a timescale to qualify for a DEFRA grant.

“The estates team seem to have struggled to find a proven technology at scale, but were introduced to Refgas, who convinced them that their design would work.

“With time pressing and due diligence on Refgas incomplete, the standard procurement and contracting processes were bypassed.

“The panel believe this was driven by pressure to ensure the project went forward and to qualify for the DEFRA grant”.

The report said that time and cost, and “rarely, if ever, risk” played the key roles in decision making. It states that it was “inappropriate” for the decision to buy the biomass plant to be based on the lowest cost and that it appeared “proper procurement procedures were overridden by the need to secure a £1m DEFRA grant”.

The panel made a string of recommendations for the future, particularly around risks and concluded: “In the case of the gasifier project, it would appear the university cannot say it was fully informed of the risks (and it should have been on a project of this size)”.

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