Fire Ravages UK’s Flagship Coal-to-Biomass 750-MW Tilbury Station

A severe blaze that broke out on Monday morning at RWE npower’s 750-MW Tilbury power station—a plant recently converted from coal to biomass that has been billed as a pioneer in its use of that technology—raged for two days, until Tuesday, when it was brought under control. All employees at the plant have been accounted for.

The blaze began at 7:45 a.m. London time, reportedly at two biomass storage hoppers, Units 9 and 10, which were filled with wood pellets. Essex County Fire and Rescue Service Chief Fire Officer David Johnson said on Monday, when an estimated 120 firefighters had been deployed to battle the blaze, that firefighting operations had been “hindered by the fact that the fire is high up in the main structure of the building, making it difficult for crews to reach it.”

"The fire involves some 4,000 tonnes of fuel in storage cells—at least two are very well alight,” Johnson said, describing the whole of the building as being “heavily smoke logged.” Crews were devising a tactical plan to look at the safest possible way of getting foam onto the fire, he said on Monday afternoon.

RWE npower, a subsidiary of German power giant RWE, in an update at 11 a.m. on Tuesday said that with the situation “under control,” Units 9 and 10 were being emptied of fuel. Unit 8 was generating power to “safely empty its hopper of any remaining biomass.” The company also said it had begun a full internal investigation to determine the cause of the incident and would be reviewing the extent of the damage to the station over the coming days.

RWE npower’s Tilbury station, which was at the end of its commissioning period on Feb. 6 and was set to begin commercial operational “soon,” was to be the largest coal-to-biomass conversion in Europe, using 2 million tonnes of wood pellets. The station is located on the banks of the River Thames, just 30 miles east of London.

RWE npower spokesperson Kelly Brown told POWERnews that the station was bound by the European Union’s Large Combustion Plant Directive to operate just 20,000 hours or close by the end of 2015.

The 1969-built coal plant was converted to biomass to help the UK meet its “challenging” renewable targets, Brown said. When operational as a biomass plant, Tilbury was expected to produce 10% of the UK’s total renewable energy output.

The conversion required no large equipment changes. “The biggest investment has been in material handling,” Brown said.

The blaze at Tilbury follows a raging fire at a 100,000-cubic-meter wood pellet storage facility at the Port of Tyne in the north of England in October.

Sources: POWERnews, RWE npower, Essex County Fire and Rescue Service Chief Fire Officer

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