While 5 per cent of Britain’s electricity was supposed to come from biomass by 2010, technical and economic problems have brought a £79 million advanced biomass technology programme to a halt. Farmers commissioned to grow biomass fuel have been left with no market for their crop.

According to Richard Landen, a spokesman for British Biogen, the trade association that represents biomass generators, equipment manufacturers and farmers, the biomass programme is a “disaster” and “a bloody mess”. British Biogen blames the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) for backing technologies too immature to generate power commercially.

The DTI wanted biomass energy to meet half of Britain’s target of generating 10 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2010, with the rest coming from wind power. Biomass currently provides well below 1 per cent of the country’s electricity. This is mirrored in the USA, where biomass supplies 1.6 per cent of the nation’s electricity. Elsewhere, biomass is an important tool for reducing CO2 levels, supplying local heating as well as electricity. It supplies 20 per cent of Finland’s total energy needs, and 15 per cent of Sweden’s.

Critics of the British programme say that it came unstuck because it tried to use two unproven technologies. The first, pyrolysis, involves heating timber, plant matter and organic waste at high pressure to produce a high-quality oil that can fuel a power plant. However, plans for pyrolysis plants in Cumbria and Scotland have been postponed. The plants are under review, owing to the high transport costs involved in shipping and collecting lumber waste to the power stations.

The second technique, gasification, aims to make combustion more efficient by converting wood chips into gas to fuel a gas turbine. However, an 8MWe plant near Eggborough, planned as the forerunner of many others, was forced to close after just eight days of operation. The company that ran it, ARBRE Energy, is no longer trading. The many technical problems faced by the plant included alkali metal contaminants in the biomass fuel. These combined with the sand used to filter out pollution and formed a glue that blocked up the fluidised bed.