Biomass credentials under fire

Biomass credentials under fire

A report by research group Chatham House questions whether burning biomass for electricity generation actually reduces carbon emissions. The research body criticised the assumptions underpinning biomass as a carbon-neutral energy source and called for subsidies for biomass to be subject to stricter sustainability criteria, a decision which would have ramifications for UK’s largest biomass generator – Drax.

Emission omissions

Chatham House has argued that current biomass policies are “not fit for purpose”, and that resulting carbon emissions are not being fully accounted for. Reported carbon emissions from biomass fail to cover emissions from burning pellets in power stations, and instead only focusses on emissions in the supply chain, i.e. harvesting and delivering the pellets prior to burning.

Chatham House criticised the “flawed assumption” that wood pellets are carbon neutral due to the ability to replant the forests from which they came. This is an approach championed by the Renewable Energy Association (REA), which has criticised the Chatham House report. REA argues that woodland biomass is “already part of the atmospheric cycle” and that carbon is reabsorbed by forests. However, the Chatham House report claims this process would take centuries and as a result should not form part of modern-day carbon abatement. It goes on to highlight that burning biomass in fact increases short term carbon emissions, in some cases more than the coal-fired power stations which they were designed to replace.

Drax biomass expansion

The Drax group has invested substantially in converting three of its six coal units to generate electricity from biomass pellets. The company has also constructed four storage domes holding over 300,000 tonnes of wood pellets on site. The company reports on the feedstock type and country of origin, and claims an 80% reduction in carbon emissions compared to coal.

In 2015, Drax received £452 million in subsidies as part of the Renewables Obligation (RO) scheme and Levy Exemption Certificates. This led to operating profits of £76m. A year later, having increased its biomass share from 43% to 65% of their total output, income from government schemes rose to £560 million. This was despite changes to the Climate Change Levy (CCL), which cost the company £34m after a previous exemption for biomass generation was removed. Operating profit in that period increased by 167% to more than £200 million.

Global concerns

Uncertainty over the benefits of biomass use in carbon reduction could cause significant problems for global efforts to tackle carbon emissions. Biomass with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) was identified as the main source of negative carbon emission technology. By combining energy from biomass with carbon capture and storage, carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere. BECCS is now relied upon heavily in the mitigation plans to limit global warming to 2°C. However, fresh concerns over carbon neutrality puts in doubt the potential for BECCS to provide the required negative carbon emissions. Without wide scale deployment of BECCS most climate scientists have modelled that global temperatures would increase by more than 2°C by the end of the century.

The consumer costs of biomass

The uptake in biomass generation has had strong implications on consumer costs. The amount customers pay for the RO has risen in line with rising biomass generation. Meanwhile, the value of Renewables Obligation Certificates for all generators has fallen.

Biomass and RO

The government’s regular survey of attitudes towards energy and renewables shows that while the public prefers other form of renewables, there is still a majority strongly in favour of biomass.

With consumers ultimately funding government subsidy schemes through levies on bills, it is imperative that they can have confidence that the schemes deliver what they say they do.

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Posted by on Wednesday, the 1. March at 11.57

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