SRN Visit to E.ON’s Ironbridge Power Station

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On Tuesday 20th August, Dr. Jo Horton, Corporate Responsibility Manager at E.ON and a University of Nottingham Alumna, invited three SRN members to join her on a tour of Ironbridge power station.

Owned and run by E.ON, Ironbridge has recently been converted from coal to biomass. The day involved an overview of the process of producing electricity using biomass and a tour of the station’s generators, biomass storage sheds and control rooms. It was interesting to learn that in comparison to the 50,000 tonnes of coal the power station used each week, the site now runs off around 6,000 tonnes of wood pellets each week. Since the switch took place, the station has been used as an experimental site to examine the impacts of using woodfuel for power generation at a large-scale.

We asked Jeremy Rison (PhD student, School of Geography) and Gaby Gutierrez (PhD student, Business School (ICCSR)) to provide us with their reflections on the day:

Jeremy: The day was particularly useful for me given my research interests: I am based in the School of Geography and am exploring the impact that the growing woodfuel market is having on the management of British woodlands as well as the extent to which woodland owners are trying to maximise the amount of carbon stored on their land. The use of woodfuel to produce both heat and electricity is now considered an important part of the country’s transition to a low carbon economy, although woodfuel is just one of many different types of biomass; there are other sources such as so-called energy crops and those derived from agricultural and municipal waste streams.

The day was an opportunity to see how large-scale power generation takes place and was made more interesting given it was about a station that uses a renewable source of fuel. Standing right next to a cooling tower and seeing the huge volume of water down pouring into the pond beneath it was a great experience. The day highlights the importance of networks such as SRN, which build connections between researchers and companies. It also highlighted the usefulness of talking to new groups of people about topics related to my areas of research as this often leads to seeing ideas from a different perspective. Furthermore, it was excellent to see representatives from a range of sectors meeting and discussing increasingly important issues about energy production (as well as its consumption) and wide-reaching topics relating to the environment.

Gaby: This experience allowed me to relate the sometimes abstract theoretical concepts that I deal with every day to a very concrete case where I could actually ask people involved in the environmental and CSR teams of the company things that I am curious about. My current research is a comparative institutional analysis of the national business systems that have led to particular types of CSR reporting practices in Europe. Here, converting a power plant to biomass is part of a global sustainability strategy in which the knowledge gained from the Ironbridge experience will be transferred to other subsidiaries in Europe (e.g. France) with plans to develop biomass plants.

The nature of CSR was indirectly expressed by many of the professionals working in the plant. While the decisions to make a plant sustainable are ‘voluntary’, these are circumscribed mostly by the regulative system (making CSR not also what is voluntary acceptable, but also ‘obeying the law’). During the visit, it was highlighted that as part of complying with laws at the regional level (specifically the European Union’s large combustion plan directive), the Ironbridge plant will have to cease operations in 2015 and this, will in turn affect the social responsibility of the company towards employees and the future of E-On in the sustainable business.

The fact that I could relate the E.ON case to my research and the valuable experience of building relationships with other CSR professionals highlights how essential platforms such as SRN are in establishing links between doctorate students and professionals in the multi-disciplinary area of sustainability.

We extend our thanks to Jo and the team at E.ON for involving us in this interesting day! 🙂

You can read more about this visit at The University of Nottingham Business School Alumni page.

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