UK’s biomass ambition: Low-cost solution or forest full of loopholes?

A new report has outlined that using waste and biomass for gasification can help the UK meet its 2050 carbon targets at a lower cost to the economy, on the same day that research condemned a biomass standard used by Drax, E.ON and DONG as a "forest of loopholes".

The role of using biomass as a “carbon-neutral” contributor to national energy mixes usually creates divided opinions, and this week is no exception. Some argue that use of forest-based biomass can lead to emissions greater or equal to the use of coal.

However, a new report by the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) has suggested that combining waste and biomass for gasification can produce low-carbon energy in line with the UK’s 2050 carbon targets, while reducing the costs by more than 1% of GDP.

The key differentiator of the ETI report is that gasification can use a variety of feedstocks outside of “woody” biomass. Gasification can convert energy held within solid fuels into gas which can then be used to create electricity, hydrogen and even jet fuel.

The ETI claims that this method would excel at a town scale, because locally-generated waste heat can also be added to district networks, adding heat and power for commercial operations.

“Our analysis work has shown that gasification projects with integrated syngas clean-up have the potential to be competitive with other sources of renewable power, but support will be required to enable their early deployment,” ETI’s bioenergy programme manager Geraint Evans said.

The UK is the biggest importer of wood pellets in the European Union (EU), shipping in more than seven million tonnes from the US and Canada in 2015.

Biomass has played an increasingly significant role in Britain’s energy mix, with generation levels more than tripling from 6.6TWh in 2009 to around 22.4TWh in 2015, or 9% of total national generation.

Dedicated and co-fired biomass facilities in the UK, such as the ones converted by Drax, have received more than £800m in Renewable Obligation Certificate (ROC) subsidies. While the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) schemes can be used to source certified biomass, a new report has aired discrepancies with another standard.

A forest of loopholes

The Sustainable Biomass Programme (SBP) standard was established in 2013 and consists of seven members: DONG Energy, Drax, EON, ENGIE, HOFOR, RWE and Vattenfall. The aim of the scheme is to provide assurances other the sourcing and carbon quality of wood pellets used to electricity generation.

The standard claims that “wherever possible, use is made of the FSC and PEFC standards” to ensure quality. But, the self-governed body has been accused of being “highly deficient in many important respects” by the US-based Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC).

A new report released on Thursday (29 June) by the Council, claims that the SBP standard ignores both the emissions from burning biomass feedstocks – which don’t cover smokestack emissions from power plants – and the carbon that is lost through logging natural forests.

“The SBP Feedstock Standard fails to provide robust, performance-oriented thresholds and protections,” the report states. “Under the standard, risk assessments can be conducted with a fundamental lack of objectivity, consistency, and connection to the management of actual source forests, and rarely require on-the-ground verification.”

The report criticises the self-governed standard for letting the “fox guard the henhouse”, noting that the self-assessment process offers “virtually no requirements” for on-site auditing.

The main criticism from the NRDC is that wood pellets made from whole trees or large-diameter wood emit carbon comparable to fossil fuels over a five-decade span. This is because, the NRDC claims, standards don’t take into account that forests act as a carbon sink.

Specifically, the report claims that lost sequestration from logging for biomass can create a “carbon debt” that can take newly-planted trees between 35 to 100 years to recover. Even freshly cut wood, the report suggests, consists of around 50% water by weight, which must be boiled off using “significant energy”.

This is by no means a new debate. In February 2017, a report from Chatham House, authored by former Government advisor Duncan Brack, claimed that emissions from wood pellet-based biomass were higher than traditional coal use.

The findings of the report mirrored a previous NRDC report from 2016, which found that burning wood for electricity emits around 40% more carbon pollution than burning coal.

However, UK-based organisations in the field of biomass have a different view. Drax, one of the members of the SBP, claims that the biomass conversion of three of its power plant units will cut 12mtCO2e per year from the power station’s operations.

Drax believes that, with support from the Government, the company could upgrade the remainder of the power station to run solely on biomass and provide up to 8% of the UK’s total electricity with reduced emissions.

In response to the Chatham House report, the REA produced a ‘myth-busters’ guide, challenging many of the “misleading statements” made within the paper. The guide claimed that the carbon sink ideology “hangs on the fallacy that it takes decades for a forest to recapture carbon”.

The REA claimed that a well-managed forest can continually grow and lock-in carbon at an “optimal rate”. In fact, the REA claimed that supply chains were monitored to create an emission cut of at least 60% compared to fossil fuels, “although the reality is often closer to 80%”.

Matt Mace

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