26 March 2020 by Joshua Doherty

Virus prompts supply concerns for biomass plants

Closure of local authority recycling centres because of the coronavirus pandemic could hit the supply of waste wood to some UK biomass plants, according to some in the waste wood sector.

A lack of waste wood from civic amenity site has led to concerns from the biomass sector about supply

The concerns about the potential impact on the plants – which contribute to part of the UK’s increasing amount of renewable electricity generation – come because a number of councils have closed household waste recycling centres. And, letsrecycle.com has been told that there are also fears that the government’s advice to the public to remain at home will see less waste wood taken to those centres which are open.

Historically the UK was a major exporter of waste wood. Over the past few years more UK biomass plants have opened and some plants and waste wood businesses are even importing wood from the Continent to help with supplies. The current situation could be exacerbated if these import flows are disrupted because of the coronavirus pandemic although a counterbalance could also be that some UK recyclers hold good stocks of waste wood.

One plant operator in England urged councils to consider measures such as drop-off points for waste wood if they close HWRCs/civic amenity sites, while others accepted the need to enforce social distancing measures but would prefer local authorities kept the sites open to maintain the “vital” supply of material.

Electricity

The National Grid told letsrecycle.com that it doesn’t anticipate any electricity shortages brought on by falling biomass supply.

“The market would respond to any changes and make more electricity available, so we would not anticipate security of supply being affected”

National Grid spokesperson

A spokesperson said: “We have a diverse mix of energy sources which generate electricity, and biomass accounts for a small proportion of that mix. The market would respond to any changes and make more electricity available, so we would not anticipate security of supply being affected.”

Waste wood

Within the waste wood sector some operators said while they are still operational, volumes are down.

One recycler commented that feedstock levels are “dropping heavily day by day” and warned that they could “only produce biomass feedstock from what is there”.

Statistics compiled by the Wood Recyclers Association for 2018, released in May last year, show that 2.1 million tonnes of waste wood were used in the biomass sector.

While plants supplied by recycling businesses which hold contracts with a number of local authority sites could be hit the hardest, there is also uncertainty regarding the skip-hire sector with the potential for volumes of waste wood to reduce as parts of the construction sector suspend work.

Planned outages

Biomass plant operators are also facing the challenge of whether to go ahead with traditional maintenance operations this spring in the face of uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

Biomass plants are considering whether to go ahead with traditional maintenance operations this spring

Consultant Uniper, which provides technical support to plants, told letsrecycle.com that some of its clients have been asking about postponing inspections due to the pandemic.

A spokesperson from the company said: “Many clients are expecting to be undertaking outages on the power generation side of their businesses over the coming weeks and months.

“We are seeing an increasing number of requests to defer Integrity Inspections coupled with postponements to PSSR Statutory Examinations into later this year or early next year. These deferments and postponements require a great deal of thinking mainly centred around safety and compliance, but the industry also needs to consider causing additional damage to plant.

“We are continuing to support our clients in building safety cases and judgements and working with site teams, competent bodies and insurers to help evaluate via risk-based approaches, and providing solutions to help manage their business operations during this difficult time.”

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