The winner of this year's Renewable Energy Association (REA) Champion Award, David Williams, 'fell into biomass', he tells Hannah Jeffery
David Williams, CEO, Eco2 Ltd
Energy Engineering Magazine
Following a sponsored degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering and postgraduate qualifications in Accountancy, Finance and Business Management, David Williams describes his first big break as “when South Wales Electricity (SWALEC) promoted me out of an operational position to become a generation projects engineer to coincide with its flotation back in 1989.” As the company decided not to be part of the ‘dash for gas’, Williams was charged with finding other business areas to move into. “Fledgling renewable energy under the Non Fossil Fuel Obligation (NFFO) seemed the obvious diversification.” Helping to build of some of the UK’s first renewable energy projects inspired him; by the time of Welsh Water’s takeover of SWALEC, he says, “my heart was already in renewables.”
Williams claims he, “fell into biomass” while working with Energy Power Resources (EPR), started as a dedicated biomass business in 1996. While chief executive of the firm – a position he enjoyed between 1996 and 2002 – Williams oversaw the development and construction of the world’s largest straw-fired power station at Ely in Cambridge, the world’s first fluidised bed chicken litter project at Fife in Scotland and the world’s first tyre pyrolysis unit at Aalborg in Denmark.
Now chief executive of renewable energy company Eco2, set up in November 2002, Williams is helping this firm develop a broad-based renewable energy business. He admits, “Eco2 was my third start up in renewables and when we started in 2002 I felt very relaxed about the usually daunting task of starting again.” The firm works on a range of established renewable energy technologies from wind – for example, the seven-turbine 12.25MW Dummuie wind farm in Aberdeenshire, opened in July this year – to hydro, landfill gas and biomass, and is looking at emerging technologies such as tidal power for potential future projects. “I often think I am mad to focus on the spread of technologies with the very small budgets I always seem to be given,” says Williams. There are, he feels, benefits to this wide scope of experience, however: “I am finding that my team’s history with newer technologies and the number of firsts we have achieved makes the development of more established technology easier. The spread of our expertise definitely helps with convincing the banks and financial institutions that they should invest in our projects."
Eco2 aims to be creative, open-minded and practical in its approach to new developments. Says Williams of the need for this kind of attitude, “One of the ways to fund more novel projects is to think differently. Biomass in particular has the added dimension of requiring fuel supply contracts. The perceived additional risk in the sector frequently requires more creative thinking, which often extends to lowering the technology or market risk so that fuel supply can be accepted. We do not stick to the usual norms in our contractual arrangements or even in recruiting staff. I often wonder what are the perfect qualifications to be a developer and still do not know the right answer. At different times you need to be an engineer, a lawyer, an accountant, interspersed with good negotiation and interpersonal skills, ambitious and dedicated.” This is something Williams has shown an understanding of throughout his career. For example, “At Ely the construction and operating contracts were very different, to the extent that it took a month to convince the bank’s lawyers they were good. Our lawyers eventually won an award for them.”
Despite the fact that the Ely plant was commissioned in December 2000, straw-fired power plants are still not common. Says Williams of the speed of development of renewable energy technologies more generally: “It is now 14 years since I commissioned my first wind farm, but I still get comments regarding the futuristic nature of being involved in renewables. I often use the example of hybrid vehicles, which I studied as part of my degree in 1977, and was convinced by my lecturers then that they would soon be commercial, so I am not surprised at the pace.” In terms of successfully encouraging the take up of renewables now, he feels that this depends on “a combination of the will of the government and the ability of the public to accept change, which can often come down to cultural differences.” He insists that both of these elements are necessary in order to have countrywide success and is concerned that the UK seems to have a problem with cultural differences in particular. For example, he notes the rather negative attitude of much of the British public towards wind installations. He warns that negative British feeling towards renewables, “will ultimately restrict deployment, whatever the will of government.”
While he feels the UK Government may be getting some things right – admitting for instance that if the proposals suggested in the latest energy white paper are adopted, “it will be the first time I have ever said that the right kind of support is being offered for biomass” – Williams is not entirely convinced by the politicians either. “We are not yet doing enough for microrenewables or heat,” he says, “but I know there is a lot of activity going into looking at how these could be better supported.” As for Wales – home to Eco2 – the country is not leading the field either. “I fear that Wales has put all of its eggs in one basket (with Tan 8 and the Forestry Commission) and I am already on record as saying that I think it will fail to meet its 2010 target by a big margin,” Williams says. “The executive team is Welsh and we all live in South Wales, but beyond that we feel that most of our business will come from outside of the country.”
Regardless of location or government policy, something must be going right, for Eco2 and its chief executive have enjoyed a number of recent successes, not least Williams’s REA Champion Award. This is the first that he has received and while accepting it is “wonderful to have recognition from the industry for all my hard work” he insists it does not mean that his life’s work is complete. “It is a reflection of the fledgling industry that it is not octogenarians winning the lifetime achievement awards,” he says, adding, “My work is far from done – I have just agreed to go for the most ambitious business plan I have ever committed to. Despite the fact that EPR became the largest renewable energy company in the UK, we did find that the business environment at that time scuppered a lot of our plans. Since starting Eco2 the environment could not be better and we still maintain a 100 per cent success rate in planning consents.”
Williams is obviously optimistic about the future and Eco2’s plans: despite moving around in the past, he says, “My ambitions have changed; it is unlikely I will start again for a fifth time (most will not realise that we started Eco2 for a second time after the sale of assets to Englefield during 2006) and having spent my career wanting advancement I am now content with the position and just want to concentrate on delivering for many years to come.”
Eco2 intends to develop a 40MW straw-fired renewable energy plant near the east of Sleaford in Lincolnshire. The plant will burn around 200,000tonnes of straw a year in an efficient, clean combustion process and could export more than 300,000MWh of electricity to the local grid. It will also be able to burn limited amounts of clean wood, in case of any shortfalls in straw availability. Farms within a 50-mile radius of the plant will be able to supply the straw required and the plan is to provide 12-year long, index-linked initial supply contracts to help initiate a new market for the material in the area. The ash produced by the combustion process will be recycled to local farms as fertiliser.
Biomass fired up?