How viable is biomass production in the UK?

This August, the UK biomass sector obtained a lift to the tune of $42.9m (£37m) in authorities funding awarded by the Division for Enterprise, Vitality & Industrial Technique (DBEIS) for initiatives throughout the UK. The award was broadly welcomed by the biomass sector, which is hoping to scale up the manufacturing of biomass as a part of the UK’s plans to extend the manufacturing of home renewable power.

Nonetheless, their optimism has since been tempered with concern following the brand new UK Prime Minister’s Liz Truss’ inaugural speech in Parliament that laid out her plans for the UK’s power sector. She spoke intimately about how fossil fuels and nuclear energy would play a key function within the power combine, however no point out was product of renewables and biomass.

Nonetheless, Truss made it very clear that the purpose was for the UK to attain power self-sufficiency and supporters of biomass imagine that due to this it can have a small however recognisable function in attaining this ambition. Whereas legitimate environmental considerations could forestall biomass manufacturing from reaching the loftiest heights of its most ardent supporters, who imagine that the method may provide almost half of the UK’s complete power by 2050, biomass is ready to stay an essential a part of the UK power combine.

Funding pledges

The funding pledge made on 4 August by Greg Fingers, the earlier Minister of State on the DBEIS, included funding for a variety of initiatives, together with growing the expansion of elephant grass, farming seaweed off the North Yorkshire coast and growing the harvesting capability for willow.

The announcement additionally made out there $5.8m (£5m) in funding to assist develop modern applied sciences to provide hydrogen, a clear gas that emits solely water vapour when combusted, from sustainable biomass and waste.

The DBEIS mentioned, “biomass’ capacity to ship at scale has already been confirmed, having generated 12.6% of complete UK electrical energy in 2020, forming an essential a part of our plans to generate extra home-grown energy and strengthen Britain’s power safety.”

Fingers added, “accelerating home-grown renewables like biomass is a key a part of ending our dependency on costly and risky fossil fuels … which will probably be important for guaranteeing the UK’s power safety and decreasing reliance on costly fossil fuels.”

The Biomass Feedstocks Programme and the related Hydrogen bioenergy with carbon seize and storage Innovation Programme (BECCS) are each funded by means of the DBEIS’ $1.2bn (£1bn) billion Internet Zero Innovation Portfolio. The BECCS helps the event of core applied sciences important for the technology of hydrogen from biomass and waste with the power to seize carbon, probably minimising the environmental impacts of utilizing biomass as gas.

Environmental credentials and considerations

Analysis undertaken by the College of Manchester suggests the UK “has the potential to generate as much as 44% of its power from biomass sources, together with family waste, agricultural residues and home-grown bio-fuels by 2050.” That is clearly an enormous improve over the 12.6% generated in 2020 and would characterize almost half of the UK’s power being generated by biomass in lower than 30 years.

Though the UK at the moment represents a tiny proportion of the worldwide annual biomass, use increasing the sector may present the UK not solely with an extra supply of renewable power however the requisite technological experience that would allow it to faucet into the biomass sectors of different international locations. The college’s researchers are working with rural communities in Vietnam, Colombia and sub-Saharan Africa to show agricultural residues – like rice straw, espresso husks and sugar cane residues – into sustainable power sources.

“A big number of biomass sources exist worldwide, but it typically stays untapped,” says the college. “In Asia, for instance, rice farming produces about 550 million tonnes of straw residue yearly. However this potential gas supply is just burnt within the fields, leading to airborne emissions which might be hazardous to human and ecosystem well being.”

Severe questions stay, nevertheless, concerning the environmental sustainability of biomass manufacturing and use. A big problem, given the scale and inhabitants of the UK, is whether or not a ample quantity of the biomass wanted to make the sector viable might be sourced internally or whether or not important quantities will should be imported.

In a current evaluation the Telegraph quoted Dr David Joffe, a authorities adviser from the Local weather Change Committee, as telling MPs it’s “actually essential” that the “overwhelming majority” comes from the UK to allow them to make sure it’s sustainable. However this might take a “big quantity of land”. It might additionally compete with authorities pledges, together with on meals, rewilding and tree planting to fight local weather change.

Dr Daniel Quiggin, a senior analysis fellow with the surroundings and society programme at Chatham Home, warned: “The stress over land goes to be completely excessive the world over and that’s the similar within the UK. Including in biomass on the scale net-zero has indicated goes to be very tough to attain. It is rather tough to sq. all of these items.”

Issues and potential at Drax

On the coronary heart of their concern is the power company Drax, which operates the UK’s largest biomass station, of the identical identify. Not solely is the Yorkshire facility the only greatest emitter of carbon dioxide within the UK, but it surely imports giant quantities of wooden pellets from Louisiana for use as biomass gas. At present, about 80% of the wooden pellets it makes use of within the plant are imported from this supply, an exercise that’s closely subsidised.

Biofuel storage tanks at Drax energy station, changing earlier coal shops. Credit score: Workforce Jackson through Istock/Getty Photographs.

In line with the power suppose tank Ember, Drax obtained round $966m (£832m) in authorities subsidies in 2020, up from the $917m (£790m) it obtained in 2019. Though that assist is because of expire in 2027, the corporate is searching for new subsidies for the event of BECCS because it continues the gradual conversion of its coal-fired energy station to biomass energy. The federal government’s net-zero technique envisages that using BECCS, “would account for two-thirds of so-called ‘destructive emissions’ within the UK by 2050,” in keeping with an FT evaluation.

Worries about Drax’s actions prompted 50 MPs to write down to Kwasi Kwarteng, then the UK’s enterprise secretary and now Chancellor of the Exchequer, final yr. This August, he was compelled to confess that importing US-made wooden pellets to be burnt for power is not sustainable, and in a gathering with a bunch of cross-party backbench MPs he conceded the DBEIS had mentioned biomass with business however “we haven’t truly questioned among the premises” of the sustainability of pellets.

For its half Drax argues that the pellets used are responsibly-sourced and that any emissions are offset by the expansion of latest carbon-absorbing timber. It claims that each one its wooden pellets are made, “not of complete timber however the off-cuts from different industries.”

A Drax spokesperson mentioned the corporate, “is considered one of Europe’s lowest carbon depth energy turbines and our sustainable biomass is essential to UK power safety, supplying sufficient dependable renewable electrical energy to maintain the lights on for 4 million households”.

This mitigation plea by Drax will not be accepted by quite a few environmental teams and scientists, who’ve noticed that it takes a very long time for timber to soak up carbon and that the large-scale harvesting of wooden threatens ecosystems. David Joffe of the Local weather Change Committee, which advises the federal government, mentioned there have been “massive challenges about guaranteeing the sustainability of biomass grown outdoors the UK”.

Vital biomass

Nonetheless, the committee does settle for the necessity for some biomass power if the UK is to achieve its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Kwarteng can also be totally supportive of the corporate and the biomass sector saying it’s a important baseload supplier for the UK energy community.

“With out Drax, the UK must import extra electrical energy from Europe at a time when the continent is in deep trouble,” mentioned a authorities official.

Kwarteng is keen for biomass to hurry up its growth and match different renewable fuels, comparable to offshore wind and hydrogen.

Regardless of the excessive hopes entertained in some quarters that the biomass business may develop to generate almost half of the UK’s electrical energy by 2050, attaining this purpose represents a significant problem. For that to occur the UK would first want to beat numerous environmental, financial and coverage hurdles that would but derail biomass’ trajectory.

A extra sensible future is that biomass, together with carbon seize storage, grows to be an essential a part of the home power combine whereas the technological and enterprise experience gained from its growth allows the UK biomass business to play a major function in its international growth.

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