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Renewable energy network for Birmingham is a world first

07 September 2014

A £1.1m initiative to reduce the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels by optimising energy efficiency in district heating networks is set to get under way in Birmingham.

Birmingham is leading the way with multiple district heating networks (DHN) powered by natural gas combined heat and power (CHP) engine systems. These networks provide heat and electricity to key buildings and areas across the City including Aston University, Birmingham New Street Station and Birmingham Council House amongst others. These district networks will be joined to create a city centre wide network. 

The initiative is the first of its kind and will also see a new fleet of electric vehicles powered from bioenergy.

During operational hours, CHP systems are usually used for their electricity production and so a significant proportion of the heat produced is not utilised. Now, Birmingham’s own CHP systems are set to be decarbonised by being powered by biofuels- organic waste such as food waste and sewage sludge- rather than fossil fuels through a unique bioenergy plant located in the European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI) at Aston University.

The improved system will also have intelligent control technologies to enable surplus power to be stored, as well as used, in the batteries of electric vehicles (EVs) and will see an instalment of the first bioenergy powered electric vehicle charging infrastructure in Birmingham’s city centre.

It means an EV such as a Nissan Leaf to be charged to 80 percent within 30 minutes instead of 6-8 hours with a standard domestic connection. This could be rolled out to over 900 EV charging points throughout the UK. 

The project, funded by Innovate UK, will run from January 2015 to June 2017. It sees EBRI and Aston Business School at Aston University working with Cofely District Energy, Cenex Ltd and Open Energi to address these challenges. 

Dr Jim Scott from EBRI at Aston University says the initiative will enable low carbon heat to be exported throughout the city for the first time. “The European Bioenergy Research Institute is excited to have a leading role in this initiative," he says. "EBRI’s 1MW bioenergy Pyroformer/Gasifier demonstrator power plant is already providing heat, power and cooling to our building and part of the Aston University campus.

"This will allow bioenergy produced at EBRI to be exported directly through the Birmingham District Heating Network to be utilised across the city in buildings such as the newly redeveloped Birmingham New Street Station and Birmingham City Library. Our bioenergy technology also enables the Network to contribute to the government’s target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020.”

An innovative control software solution will also be developed to manage the distribution of energy throughout the district heat network, optimising revenue generation and carbon savings, and helping National Grid to balance the electricity system. 

This innovation enables small-scale generators and sites with under-utilised generation assets to access a host of balancing market services passing value to the site owner rather than less efficient centralised power generators. 

The initiative offers not just improved efficiency but also social and environmental benefits too in the form of greater localised energy provision with less reliance on ageing infrastructure, job creation opportunities, a significant reduction in the use of fossil fuels, and the ability to utilise organic waste produced locally to provide low carbon energy. 

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