Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Last dregs of credibility drain away

DOUG COLLIE on yet another shattering blow for some Borders councillors

The flagship waste incinerator which was the scene of a 'due diligence' inspection by a large Scottish Borders Council delegation has developed so many technical glitches that its new owners have been forced to shut it down...and the plant will not fire up again until at least 2018.

Those readers who have been following the embarrassing fiasco linked to the local authority's 24-year contract with waste treatment "experts" New Earth Solutions will be aware of how impressed councillors and senior officers were on returning from their trip to the NES facility at Avonmouth, near Bristol in October 2014.

These representatives of tens of thousands of Borders electors declared themselves "illuminated and impressed" by what they had seen. A scaled down version of the dual Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) and Advanced Thermal Technology (ATT) model being pioneered in south-west England would provide the ideal solution for the Scottish Borders' waste disposal needs.

'Due diligence' had been achieved, council taxpayers were assured. However, subsequent investigative work by Not Just Sheep & Rugby has shown all was not well with the Avonmouth set-up before, during and after the much-heralded visit.

The spluttering ATT plant which is used to convert refuse derived fuel (RDF) into electricity via processes known as gasification and pyrolysis has been functioning at only a fraction of its full capacity, and NES offloaded it in 2015 to a new consortium, Avonmouth Bio Power (ABP). SBC's due diligence claims were already unravelling in spectacular fashion.

Now, any trace of credibility remaining with the delegation has disappeared with the bombshell news of the EfW (Energy from Waste) plant's closure which apparently occurred several months ago.

Avonmouth Bio Power's first set of accounts describe the calamitous issues and financial losses sustained into 2016. Yet members of SBC were convinced as far back as 2012 that Avonmouth's technology would soon propel the Borders to the summit of Scotland's waste treatment league.

A Strategic Report from ABP (Energy)'s directors explains that ever since the initial plant implementation, the inability of the NES MBT plant to keep the supplies of RDF within specification has driven development of the ATT plant's capability to accept a wider than intended and continually variable RDF specification.

"Whilst a number of improvements were achieved, the plant has consequently always operated at below its targeted design point. This has led to reduced thermal output and reduced availability. As a result throughput of RDF has not met the financial targets and the export of electricity has been significantly below expectations."

It is surely a matter of grave concern that similar problems and issues would almost certainly have cropped up at the Easter Langlee treatment facilities had they been delivered. So where is the documentary proof that the Borders delegation did indeed achieve 'due diligence'?

The ABP report points out that as NES Group were not in a position to improve the quality of RDF or provide sufficient funding to allow the plant to achieve its full operating and commercial performance, the ownership and financing of Avonmouth was restructured in July 2015 with Aurium Capital Markets and Australia's Macquarie Bank acquiring ownership together with Syngas Products, the technology supplier.

According to the report: "Funds were made available for capital expenditure on a material improvement programme, the first phase of which was undertaken in late 2015. This targeted improvements in availability, and the capability of taking waste and other material from multiple sources, to reduce the reliance on NES as the sole supplier of RDF.

"While these works were largely successful, the facility suffered from operational difficulties from completion through to January 2016 as a result of a fire at the neighbouring MBT, which materially disrupted feedstock supply, and therefore the plant's ability to operate even close to full capacity".

There were material improvements in operational performance. However, these tended to be sporadic and short-lived. "While there was scope for optimism at various stages, availability continued to be a problem predominantly due to the fuel issues mentioned previously.

"As a result in June 2016 the Board decided that a more fundamental approach was required to resolve the continuing operational and financial issues being experienced by the plant. It was agreed to suspend activity in order to undertake a major redevelopment programme, designed to address operational problems, including the potential switch of fuel supply from RDF - a key requirement of the development being that the site can operate on a readily available consistent feedstock.

"The detailed implementation plans for the redevelopment are currently being finalised and it is anticipated these works will commence during early 2017 and that operations at the plant may re-commence during 2018".

One wonders how those Borders councillors who presided over the New Earth farce, and who will be seeking re-election a few short months from now, will explain away their role in a tragic saga of incompetence which has cost local taxpayers millions of pounds.

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