A Tour of the Guardbridge Biomass Plant Site

Yesterday we were lucky enough to be invited on a tour of the site for the new energy centre in Guardbridge, located a few miles from St Andrews. The University bought the former paper mill in 2010 with plans to build a biomass plant with the capacity to heat the entire North Haugh section of campus. This is part of the University’s energy strategy to become carbon neutral by 2016, and while they are still only testing on the site, it will be operational by the end of 2015. It was uplifting to see sustainability principles being put into action, and made us proud to be part of an institution that leads by example.

Here is what we learned from the tour

Biomass plants have become more popular recently, but I only found out yesterday what makes them better than other power plants. Biomass plants are run on burning organic material, like wood. So basically, a biomass plant is just a giant wood stove that produces heat, either to turn turbines and generate electricity, or to warm water than can be pumped through buildings in order to heat them. In order to be sustainable, biomass plants need to be powered by wood that has been sustainably farmed. The great thing about using biomass power in Scotland is that the wood can be sourced locally, and Scottish forestry management laws are pretty strict meaning that any trees cut down must be replaced.

When I first heard about biomass power plants, I didn’t understand why they were considered ‘low carbon’, since burning wood releases carbon dioxide just like oil or gas does. However, if properly managed, trees can absorb more carbon over their lifetime than is released by burning them. There is still some debate about the exact levels of carbon savings, but the emphasis seems to be on the sustainable managing of forests and local sourcing of wood.

The university hopes to power the Guardbridge site using solar panels, but instead of using biomass to generate electricity, it will build a pipeline to St Andrews in order to pump heat to the university buildings. This might sound crazy, but some people that know a whole lot more about science than I do have said that it will save both money and greenhouse gas emissions. The environment team is also in discussion with local farmers who could provide a wood supply for the plant. Along with its plans to build a wind farm at Kenly, this will enable St Andrews University to become carbon neutral by 2016

Cheers to that!