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How the UEA blew £13m on two failed green energy schemes

PUBLISHED: 12:01 03 March 2016 | UPDATED: 15:19 04 November 2019

The Biomass plant at the UEA. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The Biomass plant at the UEA. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Copyright: Archant 2016

Almost £13m has been spent by the University of East Anglia (UEA) on two environmental schemes that have not materialised, it has emerged.

Prof Trevor Davies from the UEA. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYProf Trevor Davies from the UEA. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

UEA bosses have defended its green credentials as we can reveal £10.5m was spent building a biomass power plant on its Norwich campus, which never worked.

This, coupled with the £2.25m already put into the now mothballed Generation Park plan, has led to accusations of wasting public money, with a large proportion of the university's income generated from tuition fees and publicly-funded grants.

But the university has hit back, claiming it has numerous examples of environmental projects that have worked and that it is highly-regarded around the world for being energy efficient.

Professor Trevor Davies, who heads up the Generation Park project, said today: "Some of our buildings are regarded as the most energy efficient in Europe.

Star of the East - A proposed massive tourism and environment scheme based on the outskirts of NorwichStar of the East - A proposed massive tourism and environment scheme based on the outskirts of Norwich

"People come from all over the world to see how we do things and we have been commanded by a province in China to help design low-carbon buildings there. Our environmental credentials are not in question, this in no way undermines the environmental research we do."

The biomass plant plan was announced in 2007 and hailed as being key to reducing carbon emissions at the UEA and 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 and several years on neither targets have been met. Some of the technology involved in the biomass plant has been re-used to generate some power.

This week proposals for a £370m energy park between Thorpe St Andrew and Whitlingham were halted, with the company behind it owing £3m to creditors.

Architects' image of what the proposed Generation Park in Norwich would look like.Architects' image of what the proposed Generation Park in Norwich would look like.

The UEA, a member of the company board, has set aside a further £1m on top of the £2.25m already spent to pay off creditors.

Suzanne Jones, from the Say No to Generation Park campaign group, who has been running her own research into the Biomass scheme via the website thenorwichradical.com, said today: "This wasn't private money, it was public funds, but were those who allowed the Biomass plant to go ahead aware it was effectively an experiment, rather than something that definitely worked?

"That failed and now they want to put something similar, which is three times the size, close to the city. It [Generation Park] is untested and unproven technology but they want to put it near lots of homes. There are safety concerns and ultimately this could just turn into another white elephant."

But Prof Davies, a former pro-vice chancellor for Research, Enterprise and Engagement at UEA, said the technologies for both schemes were very different. He added: "To an extent everything the university does comes with a risk. With the biomass plant, the university assessed the technology and at the time it looked promising and the university made the decision it wanted to be ambitious.

Architects' image of what the proposed Generation Park in Norwich would look like.Architects' image of what the proposed Generation Park in Norwich would look like.

"That didn't work out, but campus wide there has been significant success in terms of reducing C02, generating electricity and selling it on the National Grid."

Clive Lewis, Norwich South MP, said of the findings: "These are large sums of money which ultimately comes from you and me and which could conceivably have been spent on more popular and pressing concerns.

"So it is absolutely right to insist on proper scrutiny and accountability for every pound.

"If the university has carelessly frittered away our money then they should be held to account but we can't (and shouldn't) ignore the fact that publicly funded research - even if it seems pointless and unsuccessful at the time - often creates huge benefits for us all of us further down the line.

The Biomass plant at the UEA which is yet to work. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe Biomass plant at the UEA which is yet to work. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

"No doubt research into curved space-time, poisonous cone snails, exploding black holes and super nova physics didn't always go to plan and may have looked like a waste of money.

"But with the benefit of hindsight it's clear that the consequence of that research - WiFi, GPS, genetic sequencing, pain medications, cancer treatments and the world wide web - were very much value for money.

"If the end game of this saga turns out to be the development of a way to reliably generate carbon negative energy and makes a serious contribution to reducing climate change, then future generations may well conclude it was money well spent."

The UEA had £242m income in 2014/15, of which 14pc came from general grants, 16pc research grants and contracts and 50pc tuition fees.

GENERATION PARK

Under the heading 'The Future', a 2004 presentation by Keith Tovey, then energy science director of the UEA's Carbon Reduction Programme (CRed), provided a glimpse of a project known as 'Star of the East'.

It outlined land at what used to be known as the Utilities Site for a state-of-the-art centre to include a renewable power station, research facility, a centre for industries of the future and a conference venue.

More than a decade on, that plan is now known as Generation Park but is still to get off the drawing board, with the latest attempt appearing to be doomed for failure after developers admitted they were struggling to find investors.

A UEA spokesman confirmed the project has been 'mothballed in a state which means it can be revitalised if private investment is forthcoming' and added: "Part of any university's purpose is to support social and economic development through our research-led activities and that is never without some risk."

The proposal, with its 90m-tall chimney, has drawn criticism, with concerns over the environmental and visual impact.

BIOMASS PLANT

The biomass plant, part paid for with a £1m Defra grant, was built with the aim of helping the campus to meet an ambitious 60pc cut in carbon emissions target by 2015 and see energy generated on site rise from 60pc to 90pc.

Prof Davies said in 2007: "It is fitting that the UEA, with its strong reputation in environmental sciences, is at the forefront of this new sustainable technology."

It was due to be fed with chipped wood that was cooked to drive out volatile gases, which were then cleaned up and used to power engines to generate electricity.

It was hoped it would be fed by two lorry loads per day of fuel from local sources and that in the summer the university would have a surplus of power, allowing it to sell electricity back to the National Grid.

However, a spokesman for the facility confirmed the technology has in fact never been operational, though they have at least been able to generate some energy from an engine within the Combined Heat and Power (CHP) unit, where it was to be housed, and sell some back to the National Grid.

The spokesman said: "The biomass plant was technology that offered much promise but did not fulfil its potential.

"The CHP engine, however, has been supplying us with power. We are making a return on this investment but at a lower rate than if the Biomass plant had been producing syngas as originally intended."

GREEN CREDENTIALS

The UEA is one of only a handful of universities to hold the top 'platinum' status in the EcoCampus environmental management system programme and its website reads: "We take sustainability seriously, at both a local and global level."

Its on-campus combined heat and power station was opened in 1999.

However, according to the UEA's most recently published Environment Report, from 2014, carbon emission rates were higher in 2012/13 than they were in 2008/09 and were around the same level for 2013/14.

Meanwhile, there has actually been an increase in the amount of electricity used from the National Grid, while the percentage of electricity used generated on site fell from 68pc in 2010/11 to 53pc in 2013/14.

Commenting on its overall green credentials, the spokesman said: "The UEA campus has expanded and this inevitably impacts on our carbon emissions.

"That said, year-on-year carbon emissions are down 3pc and electricity use is down 3.4pc.

"Last year we generated more than half of our power on site. UEA has been a leader in this field since 1999 and we usually generate 70pc of our own power on site, but in 2014 we had to replace three boilers and this reduced our capacity.

"We have more to achieve and we're committed to reducing our emissions by 35pc by 2020."

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