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Why is the UK backing biomass power?
Thu, May 5, 2011
A comment on the Guardian Environmental Blog from 5th May

The Guardian’s Environment Blog has recently asked a crucial question: “Why is the UK backing biomass power?”  Production editor Lewis Williamson covered the growth in local groups campaigning against large-scale biomass plant developments and the widespread criticism of biomass’ environmental credentials.


Williamson cites concerns over the scale of these plants and the enormous demand it creates, chiefly for wood.  The Government appears to forget that there are existing UK buyers for this wood, and that these crucial existing uses will be displaced by such huge and subsidised demand.  Indeed the recent report for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), UK and Global Bioenergy Resource, seems to dismiss competing uses and even suggests that material will flow to energy, provided the price is right.[1]


The comments on waste from DECC are nothing short of misleading.  WRAP recently halved its estimate of total waste wood arisings to between 4 and 4.5m tonnes per annum – around half of this is already productively recycled into wood products and animal bedding.  This leaves at most 2.5m tonnes that could be used for energy, subject to extremely stringent and expensive waste incineration regulations, not to mention the public’s deep-seated mistrust of burning waste.


DECC’s approach to biomass supply and demand and the potential for damage to wood processors is encapsulated in the UK’s National Renewable Energy Action Plan, recently submitted to the European Commission:

“We estimate that the global availability of biomass, taking into account sustainability constraints, is potentially some 5,500 [Terawatt hours] (TWh) per year by 2020. These calculations are based on the assumption that the wood products, paper and panel industries would be supplied first.”[1]


How could that work in a market where energy generators, subsidised by the RO, can pay more than the wood products, paper and panel industries?  Is the Government proposing to provide these sectors with preferential long-term contracts?


It is also hugely misleading to talk of supporting 50-60m tonnes of biomass demand with assorted waste streams.  There is a good reason why energy companies have focused on wood – it makes them the most money.  According to Ofgem, wood and wood wastes currently comprise 54% of biomass burned for electricity generation.


Although the UK simply cannot support a demand for 50m+ tonnes of wood, it is undeniable that energy companies will source as much of the UK’s wood harvest as possible, because the costs of importation are so high.  It is clear from data used by DECC’s advisers that there is an expectation that wood prices will rise to at least £82 per green tonne. What more evidence does government need that wood processors and users are going to be severely impacted?


Therefore, this begs the question – what is the best use of wood?  The Government’s “sustainability criteria” are a joke.  They don’t appear to measure sustainability at all.  By comparing greenhouse gas emissions of wood-fired electricity generation with that of fossil fuels, you are weighing up an inefficient and highly carbon emitting process with an even dirtier one.  What the Government needs to do is assess the best environmental outcome of wood itself.  Electricity generation compares extremely poorly with both wood processing (locking carbon up into products) and with small-scale heat generation, which is around three times as efficient. 


The Guardian’s initial question of why the UK is supporting biomass is an excellent one.  No other EU state is providing such generous subsidies to large-scale electricity generation from wood.  Germany and Austria, which are decades ahead of the UK in renewable energy, insist on high-efficiency processes such as combined heat and power (CHP) or useful heat generation. 


So why is the UK doing this?  Of course, energy consumption is still rising in the UK and much of the new biomass capacity will add to existing fossil fuel capacity, not replace it.  Beyond this, the UK Government’s support for biomass can be attributed to three main factors: desperation to reach ambitious renewable energy targets, whatever the true carbon emission outcome; a fundamental lack of knowledge of wood uses and the wood markets; and a cavalier attitude to existing wood users and their contribution to environmental outcomes – not to mention the jobs and tax revenues provided to mainly rural areas.  It is time that the UK Government assessed its support for biomass to prioritise the best use of this limited and highly valuable material.

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