There has been a lot of media coverage recently on whether biomass electrcity delivers greenhouse gas savings. Certain NGOs recently claimed that biomass is dirtier than coal and that we fail to a fully account for the carbon emissions in our calculations.
They are right in one thing; biomass is not carbon free. There are emissions associated with harvesting, processing and transport of the fuel. It also takes time for trees to grow to absorb the carbon released by the trees we burn. However, if produced and used sustainably, it is it is substantially lower carbon than the alternative it is replacing.
We are putting strict rules in place. If a biomass electricity generator wishes to claim subsidies they will have to demonstrate they will have to meet a minimum greenhouse gas (GHG) saving of 60% compared to the EU electricity grid average. This is across the biomass life cycle; planting, growing, harvesting, processing, transport and conversion efficiency of the plant itself. And we are proposing to introduce a tightening GHG trajectory over time for biomass power to deliver greater GHG savings.
The NGO report gives the impression that our policy is simply to divert whole, mature trees from construction and manufacturing and turn them into energy. It isn’t. We don’t think this is sustainable, and it is not what our Bioenergy strategy suggests. The evidence gathered for that Strategy shows that the current typical practice of taking the residues from timber production deliver greater GHG benefits than leaving the forest unmanaged.
But even then the case against whole trees is not black and white. There are cases where taking whole trees can be justified; such as use of infected wood, from forestry thinning as part of standard forest management practices or when bringing neglected woodland back into management.
We are intending to introduce a requirement that where wood is used, this is sourced from sustainably managed forests. This will build on existing programmes – Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes (PEFC). These certification schemes include social and well as environmental requirements.
Using biomass to replace coal for power generation is a short term means of reducing carbon emissions. It will play a key role in meeting our 2020 renewable energy targets while ensuring we have sufficient generation capacity over the next decade or so. It makes effective use of existing infrastructure at low additional cost to the customer.
Longer term the role of biomass energy is likely to be in heat, in CHP plants, which make most efficient use of the fuel and in selected transport applications. But for all of these applications, we clearly adhere to the principles of the bioenergy strategy: meaningful greenhouse gas reductions are crucial.