The West Midlands may not immediately stand out for its sources of renewable energy – we don’t have Scotland’s wind, California’s sun or the tidal resources of the coastal areas to harness for example.
But there is one substance which can be tapped into to produce energy and which the region’s urban sprawl generates in abundance – waste.
At Aston University, groundbreaking work is going on which places the region at the global forefront of harnessing energy from waste, including plans to build a ring of 15 mini waste-fuelled power plants around the city which could provide enough energy to cover Birmingham City Council’s entire needs by 2020.
Professor Hornung, head of the European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI) at Aston University, believes Birmingham is in a unique global position because it is taking research going on in its own university laboratories and applying it in the real world to help the city meet its climate change targets.
“I’m pretty sure that this is something you can say is a world-leading activity. You can’t find anything similar which shows the application of research in action. It will take Birmingham from being a science city to being a real living science city,” he said.
Research is under way at Aston University on how waste products from renewable and sustainable substances, including sewage, algae, agricultural and municipal waste and crops on marginal land, can be converted to energy. Even waste generated by the construction industry can be used.
These substances, known as biomass, can be put to work through a process called combustion and pyrolysis to create heat and electricity as well as hydrogen which can be used to power vehicles, tapping into the other pioneering work going on at the universities of Birmingham and Warwick on hydrogen-fuelled cars.
One of the criticisms levelled at bioenergy has been that land used to grow food has been turned over to production of biomass for energy generation, but Prof Hornung emphasised that the nature of the materials used by Aston Universty would not come into conflict with the world’s food needs.
He said: “We are looking at generating heat and power from cheap and low grade biomass which is not in competition with food or food land.
“That’s very important because it’s one of the major topics in mainland Europe.”
Work is set to begin on a biomass-fuelled combined heat and power (CHP) plant on the university’s campus this September which will be used as a demonstration centre to showcase the exciting work going on at Aston.
Dr Hornung said: “It’s very important to create a showcase – it’s not just about what you do in your laboratory.
“We have to run it over a longer period of time so when you are looking to install a system, it is attractive for investors.”
The centre, due to be completed by October 2010, would be the third combined heat and power plant in operation in Birmingham, with a plant already in place on Broad Street and another planned for the city’s Children’s Hospital.
The initiative should go some way towards helping Birmingham reach its targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent by 2026.
But the longer-term plans to put Aston University’s expertise developed through its new CHP plant to practical use throughout the city are even more exciting and look set to secure Birmingham’s place as a pioneer in the use of bioenergy.
Proposals to build a “thermal ring” around Birmingham taking in 15 mini power plants fuelled by 60 tonnes of biomass per day are gathering pace, with the first of the sites expected to be up and running by 2010.
Among other materials, the biomass used to fuel the plans could include sewage provided by Severn Trent.
When complete, the initiative should produce 580 Gwh of power – enough to cover the current energy consumption of Birmingham City Council.
Prof Hornung said after the first site comes online in 2010, he envisaged a rate of two being built every year, meaning the entire 15-unit scheme should be in place by 2020.