Mark Lane gets the inside track on the £450m conversion from coal to biomass energy generation at Lynemouth Power Station and finds out why it has been such a positive project for the region, which can now consider itself at the forefront of clean energy production
Lynemouth Power Station
Lynemouth Power Station, which has dominated a section of the Northumberland coast for more than half a century, epitomised the old heavy industries that forged this region.
Currently, the site is in the final stages of conversion, transforming into a trailblazer for the generation of clean, sustainable energy which the new economy demands to meet the threat of climate change.
“We are the first fully-converted coal to biomass station in the UK and one of the largest in Europe. Many of the technologies and some of the practices are state-of-the-art,” says Deborah Walton, finance director of Lynemouth Power Limited (LPL).
As a consequence, the station is now attracting much attention with LPL personnel being invited to countries such as Denmark to share some of the lessons learned.
It was originally built as a coal powered plant in the late 1960s to power the neighbouring Alcan aluminium smelter plant and it was one of the area’s largest employers. However, after the financial crisis of 2008, the smelter was closed and the power station, which then became a stand-alone operation, was sold to Czech company EPH in 2016.
“We knew that beyond the end of 2015 it wouldn’t have been financially viable to continue with coal, so we stopped generating in December 2015,” explains Deborah.
The old coal plant was demolished and LPL began the long and complicated process of converting to a biomass power plant, which generates electricity by burning pellets made from wood residue from the forestry and sawmill industries, a renewable source of energy.
The £450m conversion project is one of the UK’s single, most ambitious renewable energy investment projects of recent years and has become one of the largest civil engineering projects and industrial development programmes ever undertaken in the North East.
It has included the successful construction of six, new 194ft high silos storing approximately 50,000 tonnes of wood pellets onsite, working closely with building and civil engineering giant, Sir Robert MacAlpine. Furthermore, bespoke ship unloading and fuel handling storage facilities at the Port of Tyne that store up to 75,000 tonnes of pellets have also been built in close cooperation with C Spencer Ltd.
Part of the train line from the Port of Tyne to the power station has reopened to transport up to 35,000 tonnes of biomass fuel on a weekly basis. The conversion has also entailed a comprehensive, in-depth overview of all onsite facilities and processes including significant modifications to the combustion system along with a comprehensive overhaul and renewal of equipment.
The conversion has involved working closely with a number of partners, many with operations in the North East. LPL managing director Carl Hopper (pictured left) says: “It was a huge operation to build the fuel handling plant up here. We have upgraded to a soft desk which is a DCS (distributed control system) and facilities management company, Emerson, has been leading on that. If you consider the combustion side of the conversion project, that contract was held by Doosan Babcock Ltd which was primarily tasked with taking the fuel into the station, the milling and the combustion process and emissions.”
In such a huge project there have inevitably been challenges. “I would say that the main challenges have been during the initial stages of commissioning,” says Carl. “The fuel processing plant is brand new and like any other project of this scale and complexity, it did have its initial problems and hiccups coming into commission. Where we had to interface with the existing legacy plant – planned and designed back in the 1960s – and the need to interface with the new plant primarily around the technology for the combustion, those big interfaces were challenging.
“We had several issues but through our engineering resources, expertise and competency, coupled with the support of contract partners, we were able to successfully overcome them.
“In the first few months, just getting the plant to generate stably was the key focus, then to take it from stable generation into a more efficient generation and, coupled with that, trying to establish the emission control. There is a commercial driver which is the megawatts we produce, but there is also a legislative control which is the emissions that LPL must adhere to regarding our environmental permit with the Environment Agency.”
The station has already had a major economic impact and is a major employer. It directly provides about 150 skilled jobs in functions ranging from engineering to operations and support. The majority of staff live within ten miles of the station.
“We have approximately 100 on-site contractors who are based here and they have been hugely supportive during the process and the conversion,” says Deborah. “Obviously it was a large project and we had to pull various skills in, such as project management support and help. We peaked at over 800 people onsite.”
Carl says that in terms of moving into the operational phase, most recruitment has been done locally. He says: “Many of the new starters at the station have been recruited locally, and that is important given we’re a major employer for South East Northumberland and the wider North East region. We have a responsibility to our local communities as they are also our next generation workforce, so upskilling, retraining and supporting our employees over the course of the conversion project has been a big factor.”
On the project’s economic impact, he adds: “Also there has been a lot of people travelling here, all using accommodation and spending money in the shops, in the pubs and restaurants, so there has been a huge positive impact on the local economy for the last three years as the project has developed.”
LPL commercial director, Jonathan Scott, says the decision the company made to build the new related facility at the Port of Tyne has also had a positive impact on the region’s economy. “We only have approximately nine days of storage on-site, so it made sense for us to have a partner who was local. That has obviously safeguarded jobs at the Port of Tyne which lost a lot of business with the end of coal and it also provided additional employment for Hargreaves which operates the facility, and for other service providers. All of those related jobs are predominantly North East-based as are the people working for the rail freight company, GB Railfreight.”
It is estimated that Lynemouth Power Station will generate 420MW of electricity and supply enough clean energy to power 450,000 households annually once the final stages are complete.
“We are connected to the local grid system,” says Jonathan. “First of all the energy that we produce goes into the distribution network which is operated by Northern Power Grid and then through that power grid goes down to the supply point at Blyth where it joins the National Grid system. A good analogy is that it goes down the local roads towards the motorway.”
And that energy is far friendlier to the environment than that generated by a coal powered station. It’s estimated that Lynemouth will save approximately 1.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year compared to coal.
“We have reduced our nitrous oxide emissions by two thirds and more than halved our dust emissions. The sulphurous oxides are minimal now as we have reduced them by more than 95 per cent,” points out Carl.
LPL has signed two long-term contracts for the supply of biomass pellets with US producer Enviva and Canadian producer Pinnacle Renewable Energy.
“It is more environmentally-friendly,” says Deborah. “I think a lot of people, when they first hear of biomass, think of cutting down trees just for pellets and that is absolutely not the case. It’s basically forestry residue and sawmill residue products that we buy in pellet form and burn. We have to prove carbon output in every process, whether it’s the actual pellet making or the ships that bring it across, and it has a lot less carbon emissions compared to coal.”
Jonathan adds: “In every region where we source biomass, the inventory of trees is increasing each year and are not reducing. The way in which the forestry industries build their business models is that they need to plant more trees than are felled. Young and growing trees absorb significantly more CO2 than old mature trees.”
He continues: “We have to import because we couldn’t buy the necessary amount of pellets from sustainable sources if we restricted ourselves and our purchasing to the UK. We have to meet some of the most stringent sustainability requirements which include the harvesting and transportation of the pellets and make sure that we combust them efficiently at Lynemouth.”
Apart from the environment, health and safety is heavily emphasised by the LPL directors. Carl explains: “If you go back ten years, the biomass industry itself was quite an immature business in terms of technology, so as a sector, there’s been a lot of learning. Because we are the latest generation of technology companies, we have been able to learn from previous industry experience. Lynemouth has a lot of protection and the highest level of health and safety imposed.
“The plant has been designed with embedded layers of protection all the way through the plant, so if, in theory, something was to happen, the plant would automatically protect itself. That is critical across the site, the design and the combustion process. There has been a lot of learning in the biomass industry itself to get to this point and I’m sure the next big conversion will build upon the experience and success of Lynemouth.
“We have qualified, highly trained engineers and operators here at all times who look after the entire plant and they have their own specialist expertise in each area so best practice and optimum H&S procedures are already in place. Our engineers are constantly assessing, reviewing and looking at ways to possibly improve performance, if needed, but as far as Lynemouth is concerned, safety is our number one priority and wherever possible, we implement a continuous improvement philosophy.”
Carl points out that, in the future, the plant will have to go through another round of emissions controls with the Environment Agency, which will require further development.
He says: “The revenue streams through the contract for difference takes us to the end of March 2027. So the plant basically has a fixed contract until March 2027 and obviously one of the key strategies is to go beyond 2027. We have to start talking about a zero carbon by 2050.”
For the moment, the management team is quietly satisfied at what has been achieved. Deborah concludes: “We are at the forefront of biomass energy generation and we are very proud that it has happened here in the North East. Every single person involved with LPL is hugely proud that we have taken our power station from where it was to where it is now.”