But poor practices could lead to more emissions than coal
The best biomass power plants have the potential to cut carbon emissions by up to 98 per cent compared to using coal, but poorly designed facilities could lead to a net increase in greenhouse gases.
That is the conclusion of a major new report from the Environment Agency this week, which is calling on the government to introduce new regulations and incentives to ensure that only “sustainable biomass” that delivers deep carbon savings is used in new biomass power plants.
The government has repeatedly signalled its support for biomass power plants that burn waste, wood chips or other forms of biomass and has said that the technology will play a key role in its renewable energy strategy, ultimately providing almost a third of the country’s renewable energy by 2020.
But the new Environment Agency report, Biomass – carbon sink or carbon sinner?, warns that there is huge variation in the environmental and carbon benefits delivered by different plants. It notes that while biomass schemes that deliver combined heat and power (CHP) and use wastes or energy crops that have only been transported short distances can be almost fully carbon neutral, those that only generate electricity, use large amounts of fertilizer to grow energy crops, or require high levels of energy to process and transport the biomass, can in some instances result in more emissions than coal-fired plants.
The report concludes that while biomass power can help cut UK carbon emissions by three million tonnes by 2020, this level of savings can be achieved only if the government acts to promote best practices.
It recommends that the government require all biomass plants to publicly report on the full-lifecycle carbon emissions arising from the power they generate and implement minimum standards if it is found that they are not delivering net emission reductions.
It also calls on the government to grade incentives under its planned renewable heat scheme which is expected to be unveiled this summer, to ensure those plants that generate combined heat and power and not just electricity receive greater levels of support.
Tony Grayling, head of climate change and sustainable development at the Environment Agency, said that the biomass sector should act now to avoid “the mistakes made with biofuels” that have resulted in “unsustainable growth” having to be curbed.
“Biomass operators have a responsibility to ensure that biomass comes from sustainable sources, and is used efficiently to deliver the greatest greenhouse gas savings and the most renewable energy,” he said, adding that the government should also ensure that “good practice is rewarded and that biomass production and use that does more harm than good to the environment does not benefit from public support”.
The report was welcomed by the government, which said it would prove a useful contribution to its Renewable Energy Strategy and Carbon Budgets, both of which are scheduled to be launched in the coming months.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change added that measures were already being undertaken to address some of the concerns raised in the report, including the recent introduction of improved financial support for CHP plants under the Renewables Obligation mechanism, and on-going work in Brussels to agree a system for certifying sustainable biomass at an EU-level.
The study comes in the same week as new research from Friends of the Earth suggests that a failure to ensure biofuels imported to the UK come from sustainable sources means that fuels counting towards the government’s biofuel targets could have carbon footprints twice as large as the fossil fuels they replace.
Author: J. Murray