Government funnels £37m into domestic bioenergy with focus on hydrogen, but is urged to look more closely at international supply chain

Image: SeaGrown

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has confirmed today (4 August) the award of £32m of funding from the biomass feedstocks portion of the Government’s £1bn biomass feedstocks innovation programme.

This is a significant scaling up from the initial design stage of the programme, which allocated £4m. It will support 12 projects to expand into full-scale demonstrations.

Forms of biomass being supported across these projects include seaweed, elephant grass, heather, wood pellets and short rotation coppice willow.

On seaweed, Scarborough-based SeaGrown is receiving £2.8m to develop new techniques to farm and harvest the seaweed it cultivates on its 25-hectare farm.Its vision is to create an automated end-to-end seaweed farming system, reducing the labour intensity and improving the yields of seaweed harvesting.

Elsewhere, two projects seeking to scale elephant grass (Miscanthus) as a domestic biomass feedstock in the UK. One, led by Aberystwyth University, is developing modified versions of the plant that are more hardy and able to generate better yields in shorter periods. The other, spearheaded by Lincolnshire-based Terravesta Farms, is assessing how machine learning and automation can improve the establishment process for Miscanthus farms.

Miscanthus is being supported as it has a high biomass yield but low input requirements.

BEIS is also supporting projects which are more feedstock-agnostic. The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute in Belfast is receiving £1.5m for its work to develop an app that will assess which perennial energy crops farmers and land managers should plant, answering key dilemmas about where, when and how. Called ‘EnviroCrops’, the app can assess optimal yield outcomes and potential impacts on biodiversity and soil.

Hydrogen focus

Additionally, BEIS has announced £5m for projects developing ways to produce hydrogen using carbon captured using bioemergy co-located with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

BECCS can involve locating CCS with wood pellet burners, as Drax is doing, or can involve capturing carbon from waste residues. One of the projects supported is also developing a process of using bacteria to break down waste more rapidly, releasing greenhouse gases that can be captured.

In April, the Energy Security Strategy increased the UK’s green and blue hydrogen production target for 2030 from 5GW to 10GW. Hydrogen with BECCS isn’t included in the Strategy at present and will likely take longer to scale.

Deforestation dilemma

Energy Minister Greg Hands said: Accelerating home-grown renewables like biomass is a key part of ending our dependency on expensive and volatile fossil fuels.”

Nonetheless, the UK is a net importer of biomass, and concerns have repeatedly been raised about whether the Government is putting sufficient safeguards in place to prevent deforestation in international biomass supply chains and other forest-risk commodity supply chains.

Campaign organisation Cut Carbon Not Forests has this week published a report arguing that the biomass industry is still logging in protected areas in Estonia despite a government ban on some protected areas. This is because of policy loopholes which mean that logging in some protected regions is technically allowed.

Between 2001 and 2019, Estonia’s Natura 2000 areas lost an area almost the size of Manchester, the report states. It acknowledges that biomass is not the sole driver, but calls on the UK Government to investigate the link of biomass sourcing from Estonia for UK use.

“The planet is facing a biodiversity crisis, and yet huge areas of Estonia’s forests are being clearcut for bioenergy, driving birds and other animals closer to extinction,” said Siim Kuresoo of the Estonian Fund for Nature (ELF). “The UK must stop using its so-called sustainability standards to excuse these horrible practices.”

The UK’s largest biomass importer is Drax, which operates biomass-fired units at its power plant in Selby. A Drax spokesperson told edie that the claims raised in the new report are “not new” and that the company is satisfied that Estonian biomass meets its sourcing standards.

Drax’s annual reports confirm that it sourced around 209,400 tonnes of biomass from Estonia in 2021, out of a total 8.47 million tonnes procured. The main sources of its biomass are Canada (1.8 million tonnes) and the US (5.1 million tonnes).

The Drax spokesperson pointed to a 2021 report commissioned by Energie Nederland, confirming that biomass sites in Estonia meet the Dutch sustainability standards. The same conclusion, they noted, was also reached by researchers at the Dutch Emission Authority this year.

Comments (1)

  1. Charles Coles says:

    Biomass may be considered carbon neutral, (although the regeneration time is often overlooked) but transporting large quantities from thousands of miles away is reliant on fossil fuels.

    5,100,000 tonnes of wood pellets from the US, 1,800,000 tonnes from Canada etc etc – not being counted against any countries carbon emissions…

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