Tilbury Power Plant in U.K. Ablaze as Biomass Ignites

RWE AG’s Tilbury power station in southeast England, Europe’s largest biomass plant, was ablaze after a fire broke out in the facility’s wood-pellet stockpiles.

“We’ve not had an incident like this before because this is the first time we’ve converted a power plant to run fully on biomass,” Kevin McCullogh, chief operating officer at Npower, RWE’s U.K. unit, said in an interview at Tilbury, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of London.

As many as 120 firefighters were sent to the site after the incident at 7:45 a.m. London time, Kelly Brown, a company spokeswoman in Worcester, said today in an e-mailed statement. Battling the blaze is to be “a protracted incident” as the local fire brigade covers the burning wood with high-expansion foam, it said in an update on its website at 2:48 p.m.

The power station has three wood-pellet burning units and can produce as much as 750 megawatts of electricity. The U.K. is encouraging utilities to burn biomass as a way of curbing carbon-dioxide emissions and reducing reliance on fossil fuels. The fire follows a blaze at a 100,000 cubic-meter wood-pellet storage facility at the Port of Tyne in the north of England in October.

“It doesn’t have to mean catastrophe for the industry,” said Isabel Boira-Segarra, a partner at EC Harris Group Ltd., an adviser to the energy industry. “Once we find out what happened, we can find out how to mitigate the risk.”

Spontaneous Combustion

RWE, Europe’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, ceased power output at the station from March to December to convert it to burn wood pellets instead of coal. It has been generating electricity since then as part of testing.

“If biomass is stored in large volumes, with little aeration, it is very likely to catch fire as it can get very hot,” Claire Curry, a bioenergy analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “Normally biomass plants will pass streams of cool air through the biomass to avoid fires happening.”

The biomass fire at Port of Tyne last year was caused by spontaneous combustion, JournalLive.co.uk reported at the time.

Tackling the blaze is made more difficult because the fire is high in the main building, David Johnson, chief fire officer incident commander, said in a separate interview close to the site. There were no injuries reported and all the station’s employees were accounted for, according to the website.

“The fire involves 4,000 to 6,000 tons of biomass high up in the power-station building,” Johnson said. “Once we have covered the fire in a blanket of foam, the idea is that the fire will burn itself out.”

‘No Explosions’

Power for the next working day rose 2.2 percent to 46.15 pounds ($73.18) a megawatt-hour, according to broker data compiled by Bloomberg. The Tilbury station’s capacity is equal to about 1.7 percent of the amount of electricity generated at all U.K. plants at 4:30 p.m., according to National Grid data on Bloomberg.

“There were no explosions,” Mick Nicholls, manager at The World’s End pub, overlooking the power station, said in an interview. “We saw the flames this morning; they were billowing out.”

The fire may increase the cost of Renewable Obligation Certificates, or ROCs, according to Brian Potskowski, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The Department for Energy and Climate Change proposed on Oct. 31 creating a new subsidy to award power stations that convert to using biomass.

Biomass Target

The power station won’t receive tradable ROCs while it’s idle so the halt may be “bullish for ROC prices,” Potskowski said in an e-mailed comment.

The U.K. is seeking to get 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. The Department of Energy and Climate Change estimates as much as half of that may be generated from biomass, which includes municipal waste, wood chips and straw.

Burning of wood and wood waste for energy in the U.K. rose 8 percent to 648,000 tons of oil equivalent in 2010 from 598,000 tons in 2009, according to the most recent statistics from the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

“We’ve been dealing with combustible materials in power plants for decades, be that coal, gas or oil,” McCullough said. “We hope that the majority of the damage will be superficial.”

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