“The important role that biomass will play in Britain’s fully decarbonised power system.” [UK government]
Growing maize to burn… cutting trees for wood pellets…
It was ten years ago when the Vision Group’s energy group looked at a plan to install an anaerobic digester – with the aim of reducing food waste locally.
That didn’t happen, but the interest in anaerobic digestion has grown and widened – including making use of methane gas from livestock in the South West, otherwise known as biogas.
And interest has gown to include biomass – which is not without controversy as it includes government subsidies, growing maize to burn, and rising rents.
Across the political spectrum, there has been scepticism about the wonders of biomass. As George Monbiot said back in 2014, in growing maize for biogas, the crop that does most damage to the soil is being specifically exempted from the rules. As Conservative Home said at the time, George Monbiot says defend British soil and crackdown on subsidy junkies: how’s that for a Conservative agenda? And as arch-climate sceptic Matt Ridley noted:
Anaerobic digestion: a lucrative way of subsidising farmers (yet again) to grow perfectly good food for burning instead of eating. Contrary to myth, nearly all the energy comes from crops such as maize (once fermented into gas), not from food waste. Expensive.
A couple of years later, the Arthur Rank Centre said that there had been too much focus on the possible negative effects of bioenergy – and that biomass can be produced sustainably:
Bioenergy can provide 10%-30% of all total CO2 emission reductions needed but only as part of a bio-based economy producing renewable energy, food and materials. This would mean doubling the current use of biomass and would be sufficient to meet the expected demand both for carbon neutral fuels and materials, without competing with food production.
The government has just published its Biomass Strategy 2023:
The Biomass Strategy sets out steps government intends to take to strengthen biomass sustainability and the opportunities for the use of sustainable biomass across multiple sectors of the economy in support of achieving the UK’s net zero target. It builds on the 2021 Biomass policy statement and the Powering up Britain strategy which emphasised the important role that biomass will play in Britain’s fully decarbonised power system by 2035, subject to security of supply.
There’s been quite a response since.
The Chief Executive of the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology is enthusiastic:
“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. In a context of increasing international competition for the green industries of the future, the Biomass Strategy provides certainty which will help drive investment in strategically important innovations including BECCS, sustainable aviation fuels and bio-hydrogen production pathways.”
The Farming Forum is generally supportive, but raises a few questions:
Bioenergy Carbon Capture Storage (BECCS)
In theory, capturing carbon dioxide from burnt biomass and biomethane though BECCS allows bioenergy to become carbon negative – i.e., it removes more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits. However, BECCS remains largely unproven at scale.
Globally, there are only 30 commercial CCS facilities operating of any type. Investment in BECCS is important, and the government’s principles in the strategy for sustainable BECCS are strong. However, many experts urge caution in relying too heavily on BECCS in policy, as deferring emissions reductions to a technology unproven at scale can encourage complacency. In some cases, this deferral can become a form of greenwashing, although government has stretching targets for the replacement of fossil fuel power with renewables.
Overall, the latest Biomass Strategy establishes a welcome direction of travel towards a greater quantity of more sustainable biomass, with safeguards against perverse outcomes for food, biodiversity, and air quality. There are opportunities for members to leverage the circular economy and find new customers for their agricultural wastes and residues. Some members will be able to diversify income through bioenergy crops. Others may see compelling reasons to keep that biomass on farm – such as to produce compost. The focus on BECCS is a mixed blessing, whilst the lack of policy commitments on AD is a missed opportunity. We must wait for the Land Use Framework to gain a full picture of bioenergy in the context of land use and agriculture.
Finally, the (American) Natural Resources Defense Council is scathing:
There has been over a year of waiting for the UK Government’s new Biomass Strategy. While we’ve waited, forests have been cut, shipped across the Atlantic, and burned—in the millions of tonnes. At 204 pages it manages to say lots, while saying almost nothing at all. There is no new funding, and very little in the way of concrete changes to policy that we didn’t already know about.
While it blows hot improved “sustainability”, in reality this new Strategy will do nothing to stop the flow of wood from North American forests into the furnaces of UK power stations. It perpetuates the myth that the UK can simply rely on “sustainable forest management” overseas and that this is fine for nature and the climate. The growing wood pellet industry, driven by UK demand, is damaging some of the most important forests landscapes on the North American continent, and the biodiversity they’re home to. But the Strategy does hint at growing UK Government wariness of this industry by signalling that ideally the UK would shift away from burning wood pellets. After all, it’s an industry that has been beset by scandal and controversy since the start of this year…
This is a Strategy that hedges, presents little in the way of concrete policy change, and acknowledges problems coming down the pike for bioenergy. It may not be long before we see the Biomass Strategy gathering dust on a shelf, while the UK Government prioritises energy technologies that it can afford, and that deliver real climate benefits.