Burning Trees on The Forth

Posted by in March's Magazine

Fiona Greig on a proposed biomass plant near you.

I am an incomer and born-again Leither of barely two months, my change of denomination coming at the end of a five-year residency in Craigmillar. Converting my loyalties from one maligned area to another boasting it’s own edgy cachet has prompted both jokes from my family and a personal urge to familiarise myself with all that is Leith.


When a friend of mine mentioned proposals were afoot to build a bio-mass power plant locally I was curious and – I admit – alarmed, especially when I realised that my bedroom window boasted a front-row view of its intended location. My Leither chum, who has the community mindset of a meercat, duly informed me that Forth Energy, the company behind the proposal, were to display their (in his eyes) dubious plans at Ocean Terminal the following week. At the first opportunity, I trotted off to investigate further.

Not one but two very professional, informative, and seemingly frank representatives intercepted me at the low-key (blink and you’ll miss it) presentation. They answered all my questions and requested that I fill in a response sheet to their proposals before I left. So far, so satisfactory, but like a takeaway meal, an hour after consumption, I experienced major rumbles and pangs for more information and clarification – rather than an extra portion of chow mein. Cue some enlightening and conflicting Internet wanderings.

Forth Energy is a partnership venture between port operator and landowner Forth Ports and utilities company Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE), formed in 2008. The initial drive was reported as joint research and development of renewable energy. Just two years on, they are on the point of putting theory into practice on a site previously earmarked for residential development or green space. Forth Ports worked with the City of Edinburgh Council for a number of years towards the approval of master plans for the redevelopment of Leith Docks. The original impetus did include room for business and industry but their own press releases of the time made much of future housing requirements.

Stalinist architecture
Two years on and much has happened in the world economy, none of it very good, in Leith too the pinch is also being felt. The representatives at Ocean Terminal were quick to expound on the benefits of Forth Energy’s presence in Leith, the production of ‘clean’ energy, creation of local jobs in both construction and subsequently, the running of the proposed plant. They claim the project will keep the redevelopment of Leith going whilst the recession has, in effect, dried up sales in residential property. They were also candid about their status as a commercial venture. It is widely known that there are impressive financial subsidies available to renewable energy generators. However, their zeal may not cheer those who have already invested in homes and lives a couple of hundred metres from the intended site, methinks.

The physical reality is still unknown. They could not provide a model, photograph or even an exact artist’s impression because they themselves do not know what it will look like. The display did include photographic examples of comparable plants throughout Europe and an artist’s impression (guesswork?) of how unobtrusive the edifice would be on the skyline of Edinburgh – the viewpoint being from Edinburgh Castle – I kid you not. Admittedly, the B-listed grain silo making way (being flattened) for the plant is not pretty, unless you are into Stalinist architecture or the Battersea Power Station – but I’ve grown accustomed to its face.

Power plant asbos
Anomalies abound in reports regarding biomass energy and it’s sustainability – some say it is cheap and renewable, others the complete reverse. This proposed plant would burn around 1.3 million tonnes of bio-fuel per annum, the majority of which would be shipped from North America as a timber by-product. The plan is to ship most of the materials by sea, which in itself has a significant effect on global warming and is behind other forms of transport in tightening its carbon belt. Britain is currently incapable of producing enough timber for existing and planned biomass plants on her shores. Globally, less than 12% of our forests are part of any certificated scheme deeming them sustainably managed. Most of this timber supply is already committed to various ‘green’ wood users and companies. Forth Energy has not committed to certificated schemes and is planning another three biomass plants in Scotland on property owned by Forth Ports. Where, therefore is the proof of sustainability?

Is this a case of profit before people, dressed up as progress? Perhaps our prospective new neighbours will be benign and industrious, if a little unsightly? Alternatively, like a family of lottery winning neds, they could move in, flash their cash, and take over and disrupt the neighbourhood, until the collective ire of the community serves up a power plant sized ASBO…

Forth Energy will put it’s proposals to the council sometime in June…watch this space.

Photo credit: Jeremy Van LOON

For regular updates check: greenerleith.org

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