Burgeoning Biomass

A U.K. white paper and accompanying energy roadmap put emphasis on biomass potential.
By Lisa Gibson | August 23, 2011

The U.K.’s Renewable Energy Roadmap, released as part of a government white paper on reforming the electricity market, identifies both biomass heat and power within the eight technologies with the greatest potential to meet the U.K.’s 15 percent by 2020 renewable energy goals. In fact, biomass is listed among the top three, along with wind and air heat pumps.

The central range for deployment indicates that biomass electricity could contribute up to 6 gigawatts (GW) by 2020, equal to an annual growth rate of 9 percent, the roadmap says. Conversion of existing coal plants to biomass is a major new development, representing another 4.2 GW, including cofiring capacity, plus more with any new projects. Those increased expectations for biomass power have large power providers excited and hopeful that meaningful incentives will follow.

“We welcome the publication of the Renewable Energy Roadmap,” says Dorothy Thompson, chief executive of Drax Power Ltd. The company is looking to cofire biomass in its 4,000 megawatt Drax Power Station, and possibly develop more dedicated biomass power plants. “In particular, we are encouraged by the recognition of the greater role that electricity generation from sustainable biomass can make to meeting the government’s climate change targets,” she says. “That is very much in line with Drax’s focus as we seek to expand our biomass operations. However, in order to do so, we will need an appropriate level of support under the current renewables incentive mechanism. To that end, we eagerly await the government’s proposals for the support levels from April 2013.” Through the U.K. Renewables Obligation, Renewables Obligation Certificates are awarded to qualifying operations. The amount of ROC support is determined by technology type, but support levels past 2013 are currently being decided. Many, including Drax, are hoping to see elevated support for biomass applications.

The roadmap lists priority actions for the government to help further establish the biomass power industry, including minimizing investor risk, de-risking the feedstock supply chain, establishing access to finance, and accessing long-term waste fuel contracts. “Biomass electricity has significant upside potential and could feasibly exceed the industry high, helping to meet the 15 percent target cost effectively,” the roadmap states. “However, the projections can only be achieved if sufficient sustainable feedstocks are available.”

The roadmap continues into biomass heat, saying the nondomestic sector could contribute up to 50 terawatt hours by 2020. That requires a large annual growth rate of up to 17 percent. Priorities in that area include technology costs, the report says, adding that implementing the U.K.’s Renewable Heat Incentive will help make it competitive with fossil fuel generation. Air quality regulation is another important priority, as are planning and environmental permitting, investor confidence, and RHI’s capacity to help with costs associated with biomethane injection into the grid.

The Renewable Energy Roadmap was released along with the Electricity Market Reform White Paper, which states that the government intends to zero rate biomass in its Emissions Standards Performance program, a regime for new fossil fuel power stations supporting decarbonization objectives. “The government expects sustainably sourced biomass to make a significant contribution towards achieving the U.K.’s renewable energy targets,” it says. “Applying the ESP to any level of biomass emissions above zero could reduce the incentive to invest in sustainable biomass generation.”

The publication of the white paper marks the final stage of the reform process. The government intends for the legislation to reach the statute book by spring of 2013, so the first projects can be supported under its provisions around 2014.

—Lisa Gibson