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Chicken power makes its debut on the national grid: Dianne Stradling reports on a commercial breakthrough for alternative energy

EUROPE'S first commercial power station run entirely on chicken droppings has begun supplying electricity to the national grid.

Although the power station is supplying only 0.02 per cent of the country's electricity, it represents a breakthrough for alternative energy. The little plant, built by Fibropower, stands in the middle of a disused wartime airfield at Eye in Suffolk. Burning 125,000 tonnes of poultry litter supplied by local broiler farms, the power station will generate 12.5 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply the needs of 12,500 consumers.

There has been a boom in poultry sales in the last decade, mainly as a result of the beef scare over BSE and expert advice to cut down on other red meats like pork, or fatty ones like lamb. The boom has, however, left the problem of 1.5 million tonnes of hen-house waste to be disposed of each year. It can be used as manure, but that means open storage at field edges where nitrates can leach into the soil, methane escapes into the atmosphere and the stench travels for miles.

Suffolk has an intensive poultry industry, and the Fibropower plant will burn droppings from 70 million birds, all farmed within 30 miles of its Eye base. Transported on sealed lorries, the waste is fed into a furnace with temperatures up to 1,100 C, within hours of its arrival. Steam drives the plant's British-built Rolls-Royce turbine with a maximum output of 15 megawatts.

A father and son team, Simon and Rupert Fraser, who have experience in energy, high finance and computers, brought in a Danish firm to build their pounds 22m plant, secured grants from the Department of Trade and Industry, and won over local authority planners with promises of 'greenness' and local employment. But their power station can only be commercially feasible because it qualifies for a renewable energy subsidy paid for by electricity consumers.

The firm claims that its chicken droppings plant will produce 70 per cent less in the way of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, than a coal-fired plant. Its only by-product will be an ash that can serve as a nitrogen-free fertilizer. Despite its environmental credentials, not everyone has been won over. The local community complained about smells, but Fibropower believes it has the problem under control.

(Photographs omitted)