Behind the scenes at new Markinch biomass plant

Bio Mass Plant Tullis Russell Markinch
Bio Mass Plant Tullis Russell Markinch

It’s already drawn praise and criticism and been described as everything from a shining example of cutting edge engineering to a monumental blot on the landscape.

Whatever your own view, it’s hard to deny that the imposing, futuristic £200 million Biomass Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant in Markinch is here to stay and represents a huge investment into the Fife economy.

In the first of two features, the Gazette takes an exclusive look behind the scenes at the newly-completed plant, which is currently going through the final stages of commissioning process ahead of a switch to full capacity production, scheduled for May 2014.

“What this plant represents is a quantum leap in technology from what existed on this site before,” Ian Gaunt, the biomass plant manager, boldly tells me as I arrive.

It’s hard not to agree – after all, the new multi-million pound plant replaces the coal-powered power plant installed on the Tullis Russell paper mill site in the 1940s that was last upgraded in the 1970s.

Offering a capacity of 65MW of power and the ability to supply up to 120 tonnes of industrial steam per hour, it already supplies the paper making manufacture with all of its required energy and steam – and when fully operational. will still have enough left over to supply back to the national grid.

Without that that energy commitment. Tullis Russell and its 500-strong workforce would have been left obsolete with the widely-held belief that the paper mill would have been forced to close.

And with environmentally friendly credentials the likes of RWE Innogy UK (formerly RWE npower Renewables) are at pains to promote, it’s the type of investment that makes the Markinch CHP plant by far the biggest of its type in Britain.

The plant is fuelled by by a mixture of 90 per cent recovered wood waste – primarily from the construction industry – which otherwise would end up in landfill sites, and ten per cent virgin wood sourced from a variety of sites across the UK.

When fully operational, the CHP will burn 400,000 tonnes of wood of both types in a fluidized bed boiler and flue gas system – that’s an estimated 67 wagon loads, (1500 tonnes per day) of waste wood supplied from storage plants, the nearest being in Cardenden.

With the UK currently producing an estimated four million tonnes of waste wood, the Markinch plant will take approximately eight per cent of that in fuel, giving an idea of the size of the site’s operational capacity.

Ian Gaunt is the plant manager in charge of the entire Markinch operation, and has been at the centre of the operation and the construction since it started three years ago.

“It’s incredible to think that at the height of the construction process, we had around 650 people employed, there are about a hundred now, but incredibly, it takes just two people to actually oversee the day-to-day operational side of things,” Ian explained.

Ian oversees every aspect of the CHP process, from the loading of the wood fuel into a number of enclosed and partially vacuumed hoppers, though to the burning of that very same wood fuel in a circulating fluidized bed boiler.

“You could say it’s a labour of love,” admits Ian.

“But I’m passionate and proud of what we have got here and what we’ll be doing for decades to come.”

And decades is right – RWE have already signed contracts with Tullis Russell to supply their power for the next 20 years.

However, not all has run smoothly for Ian and his colleagues – commissioning work is still ongoing despite a scheduled handover planned for November 2013.

Concerns from residents and environmental activists over potential harmful emissions, light pollution and noise issues have brought a raft of criticism and angry questioning at a number of public meetings held in the local community in recent months, issues, which will be discussed in more detail in next week’s Gazette.

“There are concerns from certain sections of the public and we understand that, but we also refute much of what is being said,” explains Ian.

“We meet all of the statutory regulations relating to emissions and will continue to work closely and offer extensive monitoring with residents over specific issues such as noise.”

“The boiler technology is state of the art from Finland and is waste directive compliant, burning at a minimum of 850 degrees for a minimum of two seconds, while the plume of what some people have refereed to from the stack is actually nothing more than water vapour.

“People see it as more pronounced and increased over what came from the coal fuelled power station that came before it, but people must realise the wood fuel we are using has a moisture content that ranges from 15-40 per cent, hence the water vapour,” he explained.

Community relations aside, Ian is looking forward to the date the CHP is fully operational.

“It’s been a long time on coming, but we are now within weeks of reaching that, which represents a huge achievement by everyone involved.”

l In the second part of our biomass feature next week, the Gazette explores the issues surrounding plant emissions, residents’ concerns over light and noise pollution and how the plant is working to tackle those concerns.