Sources say £10.5m plant intended to burn woodchip to power much of the university has never worked.

One of the UK’s largest and most ambitious biomass schemes, built with a £1m government grant, has been quietly abandoned.

The £10.5m plant was intended to burn woodchip to power much of the University of East Anglia (UEA), which has been hailed for its environmental credentials.

But a source inside the university said that the biomass unit has never run for more than 30 minutes, while students and staff told the Guardian that the plant’s wood storage area is now being used to store Christmas decorations.

The power station, which was meant to cut the university’s carbon emissions by one-third when announced in 2007, was built using a £1m grant from the environment department in addition to renewable energy subsidies, according to UEA’s accounts.

Suzanne Jones, a local campaigner on environmental issues said: “UEA has established an international reputation for its leadership in environmental technology, so it’s extremely disappointing that they have tried to hide the failure of their biomass project. There has been a complete lack of transparency here.”

The university has refused several Freedom of Information Act requests from local activist group The Norwich Radical in the past six months, saying releasing the information “would have a chilling effect on the development of new low-carbon energy projects in future” and a negative impact on the economic interests of the university and commercial partners.

A UEA spokesman said that the unit had provided energy, but using gas rather than woodchip.

“It has not been possible to commission the woodchip/gasification component of UEA’s new CHP [combined heat and power] unit. However, the unit has been supplying both heat and power to the campus since 2008, using natural gas, and the university continues to make a return on its investment.

“Upgrading of old pipework and replacement of existing engines last year meant that the unit was the university’s sole source of heat and electricity generation for several months.

“There is a real need for new technologies to secure a low-carbon future and as a university we have a part to play in exploring those potential solutions. That process of exploration is never without some risk.”

Originally published by The Guardian. Image above by markheybo via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).