Biomass should be biomassive!!

Government policy focuses overwhelmingly on wind and neglects other valuable renewable sources. Here, Gaynor Hartnell, Director of Policy, at the Renewable Power Association discusses the potential of biomass to help meet energy needs.

Biomass is one of the most abundant sources of renewable energy in the UK. Agricultural wastes, forestry wastes, purpose-grown energy crops and the biomass content of a range of other waste streams can be converted into useful energy, given the right incentives, and in doing so bring a range of environmental, commercial and employment benefits.

The reason for its success during the 1990’s was the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation (NFFO), a policy whereby bankable power purchase contracts were awarded to renewable energy projects according to their need. This policy was a competitive tendering process and was flexible enough to support technologies at a range of different stages of commercialisation.

The Renewables Obligation (RO), which replaced the NFFO, is based on a different philosophy. The idea is that the Government sets a broad framework of market demand for renewable electricity and the market decides on which technologies to bring forward.

Onshore wind energy has been boosted considerably by the introduction of the RO. It is one of the cheapest sources of renewable electricity and, unlike landfill gas, is not limited by the size of the resource available. The increase in activity in wind and the stalling of activity in biomass has lead the Government to declare that it expects the 10% target to be met almost exclusively by existing renewable generation plus new wind capacity.

The Innovation Review concludes “Wind power, both on- and off-shore,
is presently the only economic scaleable technology and will deliver the majority of the required growth in renewable energy to meet the 2010 target.”

This is different from expectations at the time the RO was mooted. The first time Government stated what it anticipated from different renewable resources for the 10% target was in a document published in March 1999. The “trends continued” scenario from this document, under which biomass was anticipated to comprise 10%, is shown below. Together biomass and energy crops were to make up 21% under a “constrained wind” scenario, or 6% under a “high wind” scenario .

The DTI Renewables Team has been restructured reflecting this view. The 2010 Target Team concentrates on overcoming wind deployment barriers, whilst other renewables including marine, solar and biomass have moved to another Directorate lead by Bronwen Northmore. Bronwen is speaking at the RPA conference on the Government’s “Second Front” on Biomass. There is also a project team for the 2005-6 Review of the RO and a combined policy/briefing team.

Is this a problem?

The RPA would argue that relegating other renewables to a minor role until beyond 2020 is undesirable for three reasons. From the perspective of biomass alone, there is a loss of rural diversity and waste management benefits from exploiting biomass, along with loss of the contribution it can make to systems benefits as a non-intermittent renewable. There is also a lack of grid capacity in the areas where developers are most interested in bringing wind energy projects forward.

Much of the new onshore wind capacity is proposed in Scotland, but there is insufficient capacity on the transmission network to accommodate the extra north to south power flows. New infrastructure is required, comprising new power lines. The planning process or such work has in the past taken more than 10 years. The recently published RAB networks study concludes “the DTI and the Scottish Executive would need to accelerate the planning process on a national scale as a matter of urgency, taking into account that public perception of renewable power will play an important role in planning-related issues for both renewable power projects and the associated network reinforcement work.”

It is hoped that the next upgrades can be undertaken in less than five years, despite the project being larger and likely to be more controversial. If the normal planning process is circumvented there is likely to be a backlash of public opinion, which will focus on wind energy. Indeed there are already signs that this is starting to happen in Scotland.

A report published in 2002 looked at the additional system costs of increasing the renewables penetration from 20% to 30%. It concluded that a mix of predictable base load plant, such as the biomass technologies located throughout Great Britain, and the closer-to-market interruptible generators, such as wind, dispersed around England and Wales, would be three times less costly than one met entirely from intermittent generation, such as wind, located predominantly in Scotland and northern England.

Why has it been difficult for biomass?

Biomass is unique among the renewable energy course in that there is a fuel cost. Some examples are shown in the table below.

Project developers suggest that this fuel cost adds around 2p/kWh to the generation cost for dedicated biomass plants.

There is an added difficulty with developing energy projects; farmers are reluctant to plant crops for a power station which has not yet been built, and banks are not prepared to finance a power station which does not have an established source of fuel.

It is to help overcome this dilemma that co-firing energy crops at existing coal-fired power stations was introduced into the Renewables Obligation.


Many of the cheapest biomass residues are now being used in co-firing rather than as a fuel source for newly-built, dedicated biomass plants. Co-firing has suffered a rather a bad press both within and outside the industry. This is unfortunate, as it certainly brings environmental benefits; every tonne of biomass which replaces coal results in CO2 savings; the emissions associated with shipping biomass are relatively small and because of the large scale of operations there is no doubt that it can be a powerful driver for the establishment of fuel supply chains.

The less favourable associations of co-firing include

  • The view that it keeps coal fired capacity going, thereby encouraging coal burn. This is not a view endorsed by the RPA.
  • The de-stabilising effect it has on the Renewables Obligation, due to the difficulty of predicting the volume of co-fired ROCs coming forward and hence impact on ROC values, also because the rules of the RO were changed to facilitate the establishment or energy crops, with the associated negative implications on investors’ confidence.
  • There are also competition issues between dedicated biomass projects developers and generators and co-firers for fuel.

Ultimately co-firing is intended to be phased out, although it is hard to see the merits of forcibly ending the practice in 2016. The Royal Commission in its Biomass report suggests that the capacity to replace co-firing with completely biomass-fuelled power production is likely to remain limited beyond the 2016 deadline.

Looking ahead

Biomass still feels like an area where much more needs to be done and the RPA conference later this month is an ideal opportunity to explore the possibilities. A number of solutions have been put forward, including the Royal Commission report, the conclusions of the innovation review and the RPA’s own proposals. There are also the practical aspects to consider.

For more information on biomass and the RPA conference see the RPA Website

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