Biomass Strategy: UK Government affirms role of BECCs in meeting net-zero emissions

Biomass domes at Drax Power Station. Image: Drax

The Government’s new Biomass Strategy was published on Thursday (10 August), outlining the role that bioresources can play in reaching net-zero while improving energy security.

The Strategy confirms that the Government will “develop and implement a cross-sectoral common sustainability framework” to define biomass that is low-carbon and can deliver genuine carbon emissions savings.

It also explores the UK’s domestic feedstock and how this can contribute to energy security. It states that access to sustainable feedstocks at scale and prices will determine how biomass can contribute to the Net-Zero Strategy. Currently, domestic biomass sources account for 66% of the total biomass used in renewable energy generation.

“Biomethane will continue to play an important role in optimising the path to net zero and increasing energy security; it can support decarbonising a number of sectors such as heat, transport and power, and the anaerobic digestion (AD) process is recognised as a recycling activity, creating a more circular economy,” the document states.

BECCS focus

The Strategy reiterates an existing Government ambition to deliver 5Mt of carbon removals annually by 2030, potentially increasing to 23Mt by 2035 and 81Mt by 2050. BECCS is considered to provide the majority of these carbon removals.

Up to 2035, the Government plans to further develop biomass applications and uses in power, heat and transport in order to support the delivery of the Sixth Carbon Budget. This would enable the transition away from unabated emission uses of biomass to switch to BECCS.

In the UK Drax is one of the biggest supporters of BECCS, but has recently paused its £2bn investment scheme in a BECC scheme at its power plant in North Yorkshire, stating that it needs a “firm” offer of support from the Government before proceeding.

BECCS technologies have been in place at Drax’s Selby power plant in North Yorkshire since February 2019 and have been scaling up in stages ever since. Drax intends to bring its first full-scale BECCS unit online at the site in 2024 at the earliest and add a second by 2030, capturing eight million tonnes of CO2e annually. This entire workstream has been costed at some £2bn.

Drax’s chief executive Will Gardiner welcomed the strategy, reiterating the organisation’s intention to deliver BECCs in North Yorkshire, provided the ongoing discussions with the Government “are successful”.

“We welcome the UK Government’s clear support for sustainably sourced biomass and the critical role that BECCS can play in achieving the country’s climate goals,” Gardiner said. “The inclusion of BECCS at the top of a priority use framework is a clear signal that the UK wants to be a leader in carbon removals and Drax is ready to deliver on this ambition.

“We look forward to working alongside the Government to ensure biomass is best used to contribute to net zero across the economy, through further progression of plans for BECCS and ensuring an evidence-driven, best practice approach to sustainability.”

Groups like Ember and Cut Carbon Not Forests have pointed to research suggesting that BECCS cannot capture the emissions associated with the international wood pellet supply chain. Other opponents of BECCS on these grounds include Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Wildlife Trusts.

The Government has also published an “evidence-based assessment” of BECCS and whether it can deliver a roadmap to help with negative emissions. It does state that a “well regulated” BECCs market can play its role in meeting net-zero.

The Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology (REA) welcomed the Strategy’s recognition of the role of BECCS, but has called for further action to create workable routes to market for BECCS applications to scale carbon removals.

The REA’s chief executive Dr Nina Skorupska CBE added: “The Biomass Strategy is highly welcome and shows the Government’s commitment to the vital role of sustainable biomass in delivering energy security and Net Zero. Bioenergy is the UK’s largest source of renewable energy across power, heat and transport and the Biomass Strategy provides important confidence to these established low-carbon industries, maintaining skills, supply chains and jobs.

“The UK is a world-leader in sustainable bioenergy, but urgent policy action is needed to realise opportunities across the sector. The REA welcomes and will fully engage in the upcoming consultation on a cross sector sustainability framework, ensuring sustainability governance arrangements remain world leading. Government must build on the Biomass Strategy to bring forward workable business models at all scales for critical Net Zero technologies such as BECCS; increase the ambition for bio-based heat and transport decarbonisation; as well as further supporting the scale up of innovative biomass feedstocks such as perennial energy crops.”

Industrial uses

The Strategy also outlines planned applications across industry, heating and transport.

On the latter, the document notes that biomass use will likely switch from road vehicles as more electric vehicles (EVs) come to market and will shift to “transport modes with limited alternatives to the use of liquid and gaseous fuels”, such as aviation and maritime.

The Department for Transport (DfT) will publish a Low Carbon Fuels Strategy later this year outlining the role of biomass in transport.

As for heating, the Strategy claims that biomass can have a role in heating in certain properties such as off-gas grid homes that are not readily suitable for heat pumps.

The Government also states it is working with industry to meet an ambition of replacing 50TWh of fossil fuels with renewable energy sources by 2035. The document states that industrial uses should be utilised in combination with carbon capture technologies.

Biomass can also be used, the Government sates, “directly as a feedstock for low-carbon hydrogen” and if carbon capture and storage is added this can provide negative emissions.

The Carbon Capture and Storage Association (CCSA) also welcomed the publication of the strategy.

The CCSA’s chief executive Ruth Herbert said: “Capturing carbon produced from burning biomass is an important part of the carbon removal toolkit to remove greenhouse gases from our environment, particularly for hard-to-decarbonise sectors like agriculture and aviation. It will help ensure we can protect jobs, maintain important industries and deliver our net-zero ambitions.

“BECCS is one part of the suite of carbon capture and storage solutions that has the potential to underpin the next industrial revolution. We urgently need HM Treasury to set out further detail on the scale and 5ming of support to BECCS and other potential carbon capture sites. Failure to act this Autumn would risk undermining investor confidence in the UK while others such as the United States race ahead in the development of this vital technology.”

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