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Predictable, renewable, is bioenergy the way forward?

Posted by Gabby Mallett on 7 October 2015 at 12:50 pm

I recently had the opportunity to speak to Tim Miller at the European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI), Aston University. Here is some of what I learned.

The National Grid's announcement of an increased risk of blackouts this winter has resulted in buying in additional supplies being purchased at a cost of £36m.

Tim Miller, is Director of Operations at the European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI).  He believes that an innovative supply and demand structure could change the way we generate, consume and store our energy - negating the risk of blackout panics and large cash injections.

What has caused the National Grid to announce an increased risk of blackouts this winter?

The problem, as always, is one of supply and demand.  The UK is now reliant on buying in much of its energy from overseas which means that we have very little flexibility in the system to cope with the inevitable peaks and troughs in energy demand.  The recent closure of some power stations has left spare capacity on the system at just 1.2% - the lowest for a decade.  This has meant resorting to buying in additional supplies as well as asking some industries to switch power off at peak times.

How can bioenergy reduce the risk of power blackouts where other renewables can’t?

Bioenergy (energy derived from biological matter – including wood, sugarcane, manure etc) could have a significant role to play in changing the way that we generate, consume and store our energy – by developing an innovative supply and demand structure.  Many renewables such as wind and solar definitely have their part to play in the green energy landscape but they can be unpredictable (it isn’t always sunny and the wind doesn’t always blow) and will only be able to contribute a certain amount until we have better storage solutions.  Bioenergy has the potential to allow the flexibility provided by power stations, without the need to burn fossil fuels.

How should we address the issue of demand?

Tim told me that we need to be much smarter about the way we use energy – and have an infrastructure that can react to the inevitable peaks and troughs.  For example, imagine if all household freezers could be turned off automatically for five minutes - it would have no impact on the food, but a huge impact on additional energy which is required elsewhere at that specific moment.  This has enormous potential to minimise the huge peaks and troughs for energy supply which cause such a strain on the grid.  So not only is there a need for predictable energy, but this needs to be coupled with good metering and controls.

At the EBRI they produce their own energy from biomass feedstocks to heat, power and cool their building, combined with an Intelligent Control System which provides them with a second by second analysis of the power demands of the building. 

Could this system be replicated in people’s homes?

Yes.  Bioenergy by its very nature lends itself to local use and the model the EBRI is developing will help to make community schemes much more economically viable. 

One is example Tim explained is that they are ’putting in a link to the Birmingham District Heating Scheme (DHS) so that we are able to export the energy that we produce to the rest of the university and consequently we are the only centre supplying energy produced from bioenergy to a District Housing SchemeDistrict Heating Schemes are mostly about generating heat and selling it to customers whereas we are connected as a supplier to the grid which is having an immediate impact on our local campus community’..

They are also unique in that they are using bioenergy to charge electric vehicles on campus, and then using those car batteries to store the energy which we can feed back into the grid as and when is necessary.  This fully integrated system is unique and there is no reason why this can’t eventually be replicated across the UK in people’s homes.

Why isn’t bioenergy being used more widely already?

In general, bioenergy is far less energy dense than coal or gas, so more of it is needed to produce the same amount of energy.  Therefore, if it has to be transported distances the economics just don’t work.  To make the whole system much more efficient localised generation and use are needed.  Keeping it local and small scale ensures that there aren’t additional distribution loses and unnecessary costs.   

What is the future for bioenergy in the UK?

As well as developing a more localised energy infrastructure, it will make sense to invest in bioproducts – the range of products that can be produced from bioenergy.  When oil companies pump out crude oil they look at it economically as a feedstock.  They probably make as much, or more, money from the production of high value chemicals as they do from fuel – and at EBRI they are now looking at bioenergy feedstock in the same way.  This requires a lot of expertise in analysing the chemistry behind the feedstock – and then determining the varying economic value of the different bioproducts.  Tim explained that ‘this is where I believe the development for bioenergy lies over the next decade and beyond – eventually preventing the use of fossil fuels’.

This isn’t science fiction, EBRI has shown that for district heating schemes this can be reality.  Renewable energy, delivered predictably to your home.  What more could we want.

Photo credit: Methapower

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2 comments - read them below or add one

NEF Gabby

NEF GabbyComment left on: 8 October 2015 at 3:06 pm


See our previous blog called Using the New Ace for Community Energy Project support tool posted on 16th March.

Also have a look at the action packs, click on the top right hand corner once you have found the ACEforCommunities website. There is a pack there all about setting up community Anaerobic Digestion plants.

Hope those help.


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Graham Marshall

Graham MarshallComment left on: 7 October 2015 at 6:09 pm

I live in a large town in the Scottish Borders surrounded by hill land which is relatively difficult to farm profitably. It seems to me that we could be precisely the type of community to benefit from this kind of idea. How would I go about starting a scheme?


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