Betting on Biomass

Ambitious EU renewable energy goals prompt the U.K. to support biomass-based energy development.
By Peter Taberner | September 20, 2011

The U.K., along with all members of the European Union, is evolving its energy base to meet the ambitious target of 20 percent of fuel originating from renewable sources by 2020. The Conservative-Liberal coalition government believes that the biomass market is worth taking a bet on.

New biomass plants could be sprouting up all over the U.K. with planned developments from Forth Energy’s projects in Scotland in Dundee, Leith and Grangemouth, to Peel Energy’s plant in Manchester, all the way down to the southern coast with Helius Energy’s wood fuel plant in Southampton. 

Incentivizing Biomass

Despite endorsing more severe spending cuts compared to other comparable economies, the coalition government has supported the biomass market with generous subsidies, mainly because of the cost of biomass in relation to other renewable energy sources.

“Biomass heat is the lowest-cost renewable in terms of the [metric tons] of CO2 saved per pound invested, usually by some margin,” says Jim Birse, commercial director of Econergy Ltd., a U.K.-based provider of biomass solutions. “The Renewable Heat Initiative, that will provide financial assistance to the generators of renewable energy including long-term tariff support to big heat users, will cost a lot less per metric ton of CO2 than the feed-in tariffs for PV (photovoltaic).”

“Heating and heating fuels account for 45 percent of the U.K.'s CO2 emissions, and heating accounts for 70 percent plus of a typical home's energy use—any energy policy aiming to reduce CO2 must tackle this sector,” Birse says. “Biomass boilers are directly compatible with standard heating and hot water systems, and can be used to raise MPHW (medium pressure hot water) and steam for industry applications.”

An official report produced for the Department for Energy and Climate Change by AEA, a provider of analysis, advice and data on economically sustainable solutions for energy and environmental issues, concludes that U.K. feedstocks are projected to provide one-third of bioenergy by 2020, producing about 1,800 petajoules of bioenergy supply, equivalent to 20 percent of current primary energy demand in the U.K.

There will be exponential increases in imports, however, as the forecast is for the proliferation of energy crops being planted globally. The EU, Eurasia and non-EU countries could provide 70 percent of potential imports by 2030, and there remains the juicier prospect of China becoming a big export market if it also increases its crop. This is also why many of the U.K.’s new biomass plants are being built in coastal areas in ports.

Feedstock Supplies

Even though a reliance on import markets has been anticipated, the U.K. still possesses a substantial market supply of its own. Wood waste fuels that are being consumed for combined-heat-and-power (CHP) boilers are increasingly being used by local authorities in residential and industrial properties. That is despite the much remarked upon initial steep outlay for biomass boilers, which are priced at about £11,000 ($18,000) compared to £4,800 for installing solar power.

Agricultural waste including dry residues from straw, corn stover and poultry litter can be burned by medium-scale biomass power plants and CHP sectors to produce between 10 and 50 megawatts of electricity.

Food waste is also there for the taking, with huge amounts of organic waste material being created from manufactured foods and drinks, including beer, whiskey and wine, and cheese. It has been estimated that 92 percent of brewing ingredients end up as waste, mostly spent grains, and that dairy products produce 40 million cubic meters annually, mainly for cleaning, which produces effluent containing high levels of organic residues.

Additionally, energy crop growth has potential, and projections may ensure plans are made for increased planting. For example, 700,000 hectares (1.7 million acres) is 3.7 percent of U.K. agricultural land and is the area that used to be “set-aside” under EU agricultural policy. “If this area were to be planted with woody energy crops, we'd expect an annual yield of something like 9 million tonnes (9.9 million tons) per year,” Birse says.

“The U.K. possesses considerable untapped biomass resources,” says Keiran Allen, technology acceleration manager at the Carbon Trust. “Up to 4 million tonnes exists in under-managed private forestry alone, and the Forestry Commission estimates that up to 2 million tonnes could be sustainably extracted in England for fuel use every year. Beyond this, large volumes of waste wood are still currently going into landfills and between 3 million and 5 million tonnes per annum could instead be used for fuel. Marginal land could also be used for energy crop planting.”

“In the U.K. we are starting from a low base with lower levels of affinity with biomass and wood as a fuel,” Allen says. “We also face lower absolute availability of materials relative to our total annual heat demand and there is a shortage of forestry-specific skills which must be developed to enable the industry to grow.”

Other constraints may be affected by finance and confidence in the supply chain, and for markets to become successful may depend on the regulatory framework that any nation implements. As the report produced for the DECC states, there is extensive room to grow energy crops in the international marketplace including in the U.K.

Opposing Forces

While biomass may be a much-vaunted renewable energy source in certain quarters, it is not without its detractors, who question the carbon neutrality of burning wood plus the aftereffects of any deforestation, and whether this will outweigh the emission savings in the long run. Taking into account capital and largely populated cities, whether more greenhouse gases released in the air is appropriate is dubious.

This view is supported by Biofuel Watch, which keeps an eye on the negatives of bioenergy. “I suspect that they are concerned about 'keeping the lights on' when nuclear plants are due to be decommisioned combined with public fears about safety; then there are concerns about energy security from Middle Eastern oil and Russian gas,” says a spokesperson for the organization. “The negative effects of biomass in comparison to other renewable energies are numerous and include rainforest destruction and other habitat loss leading to a reduction in biodiversity, land evictions and other human rights abuses, water and soil degradation, genetically engineered plantations with increased fire risk and water use, loss of carbon sinks, food sovereignty and food security issues and lastly but by no means least, air pollution and black soot.”

The debate about biomass rages in the U.K. as the prospect of reliance on it increases, however the watchdog’s view is forcefully dismissed by Geoff Hogan of the government-funded Biomass Energy Centre.

“There are all sorts of rubbish published about the carbon impact of biomass, often along the lines of ‘cutting down trees to burn is bad,’” Hogan says. “If managed properly biomass for fuel is sourced as a byproduct of existing good forestry practice and is poor quality material removed as a part of thinning operations and trimming of side branches, slab wood, chips and sawdust from the processing of the high-quality timber in sawmills for use in construction and joinery. Trees are essentially grown for timber; biomass for fuel is a byproduct of the industry.”

“However, it can also be done unsustainably and inappropriately giving unacceptable direct and indirect land-use impacts, poor carbon savings and negative social impacts,” he adds. “Legally harvested timber in the U.K. is subject to the U.K. Forestry Standard, imposed via felling licenses and is therefore sustainably sourced. Illegally obtained wood in any country is unlikely to be sustainable.”

Advocates of biomass should also be wary of ‘not in my backyard’ groups—or as the colloquial term would have it NIMBYs—who are against biomass construction. This has erupted more conspicuously against Helius Energy’s plans for a 100-megawatt wood fuel plant in Southampton, even though they announced they would not source fuel from protected areas in an attempt to bat off local protests.
Vociferous opposition from local residents criticized the £300 million building, which included a 100-meter-long chimney stack, in the docks area of the city as an eyesore and possessing no positive environmental impact.

Developers are now being forced into retreat by the protests with a delay on fresh consultations for the plants’ designs to extend community consultation, and this comes after it was announced that the original designs are being downsized.

The significance of this should not be dismissed when taking wind energy into account. There is thought to be more than 230 localized campaigns against wind energy, and they have campaigned to great effect as existing council laws defer to the concerns of local residents’ priority over turbine building. As a result, approval rates for turbines have dropped by 50 percent, say Renewables Energy U.K., who believe local developers are alarmed at the consistency of negative decision making on wind farm building. According to figures from law firm McGrigors LLP, who have six offices across the U.K., 48 percent of onshore farms are being refused planning permission.

Alison Jones, community relations manager of the U.K. and Ireland development at the RES Group, who have a biomass project in the planning stage in North Blyth, and about to begin the pre-planning public consultation on an Alexandra Dock project in Liverpool says “RES is experienced in renewable energy project development and we take community consultation seriously. A comprehensive process of consultation that engages with local people and stakeholders from an early stage allows an informed debate to take place. This helps us to identify issues of concern, negotiate solutions and design a low-impact project that will be welcomed as a positive asset by the local community.”

The coalition government and developers will be hoping that progressive steps such as these will work—making that bet worth taking after all.
Author: Peter Taberner
Freelance Writer


3 Responses

  1. Steven Galton



    Whilst it is great you mention the No Southampton Biomass campaign, to categorise our campaign as one based on NIMBY reasons is a little unfair - yes we feel this development is planned too close to a very dense urban population that already has some of the worst air pollution figures in the UK, but in our very thorough research of biomass we have some very genuine concerns that have yet to be answered and these form the backbone of our objections for this or any other large scale, electricity only power plant planned for biomass burning... Ignoring sustainability and the fact that there is a potentially large gap in the current worldwide supply of biomass and the anticipated demand if all the planned biomass plants are built over the coming years as Robert has put a CHP plant is 70% more efficient than just electricity generation alone. There should be research into where the plants can be sited to immediately use the heat element to make maximum carbon savings and make the best use of what is a limited supply source. If we are going to have just electrical generation then we should look at converting all existing large scale coal plants to biomass as a priority - this has the added bonus of a much smaller carbon footprint in the construction phase as to retrofit is far less intensive than to just build new. These plants could then be fuelled off UK supplied biomass as part of well managed forestry as suggested. Our issues with Helius's promises of ethically sourced wood is when you read what constitutes a sustainable source and discover it covers of land use from 1st January 2008 onwards only - so basically decades of deforestation and land misuse can be ignored as long as it wasn't forest on this particular date - personally we should be doing more to repair the damage done in certain regions than just wiping the slate clean... There is also evidence of a switch from food production to biomass production in certain continents which causes social issues within the countries at a local level yet are conveniently forgotten after the 1000's of miles of shipping and the certificate that states the wood source is sustainable - not to mention the legal issues of how exactly do you ensure global standards are met and regulated fully in countries that aren't under the UK or EU regulatory bodies high levels of scrutiny. Small scale and UK sustained biomass can be a good and positive thing, these port based, large scale plans are nothing more than an attempt to make a great deal of profit by exploiting "green energy" regulations as they stand today and have little to do with making a genuine effort to provide the best possible green energy source possible! Hopefully the ROC review will also recognise this point...

  2. Robert Palgrave



    Michael, the experience at Bishop's Castle is being repeated all over the UK, as developers smell the subsidy money being handed out for burning biomass. At projected implementation rates, biomass electricity could be costing the UK energy consumer £3bn per year in 2020. Every large-scale biomass power station goes into planning in the UK (permitting) with a requirement that the developer carries out a review to establish what opportunities there are to sell waste heat. Oddly enough these reviews always come back with a negative answer - inevitable really considering a) the size of the power stations meaning the available heat is much greater than any neighbouring user could possibly take, and b) the location, typically on a port side to facilitate imports. The 'CHP review' is presented as part of the planning application and is generally accepted without question. Consequently, the UK is now intending to build several GW of wood electricity power stations with efficiencies in the low 30%. Yet the EU Renewable Energy Directive, in its feeble attempt to drive energy efficiency rather than just more renewables, actually says, at Article 13.6: "In the case of biomass, Member States shall promote conversion technologies that achieve a conversion efficiency of at least 85 % for residential and commercial applications and at least 70 % for industrial applications." The UK is flagrantly ignoring this 'requirement' to ensure efficient use of biomass. And until very recently, national planning policy had a statement advising that Sustainable Development' meant among other things - 'Prudent use of Natural Resources' (in PPS 1 Climate Change Supplement). I wonder - how is it prudent to strip forests in other countries, ship the wood to the UK and burn it at such low efficiencies? The comment above from the Biomass Energy Centre is very unfortunate. And wrong. Big biomass electricity at the scale of Tilbury (750MW) and Angelesey (300MW) will not run on 'residues'.* Each power station will need millions of tonnes of fuel a year. Tilbury is being fed from a specially built pellet facility in Georgia, USA. The imports for Tilbury alone will exceed the current pellet imports to the UK. Does Mr Hogan seriously expect us to believe there are millions of tonnes of spare forestry residue available in the UK every year that can be supplied to power stations around the coast? Can they be transported by road? What is happening to all that 'waste' at the moment? Perhaps a good proportion of it is going to the particle board producers who are also opposing biomass electricity. * Pictures are available of biomass power stations in Scotland with piles of whole tree logs outside waiting to be processed.

  3. John Penfold



    Robert and Michael, you are right the use of large-scale CHP and power stations is the wrong use of scarce financial resources,I am also worried about other large heat users such as airports mopping up the subsidy (Renewable Heat Incentive).This is going the same way as PV when large-scale installations were due to take all the allocated money. The Govt. should change the tariffs for biomass to encourage smaller-scale installations ,where small businesses and home owners who are off the gas grid and hard pressed to pay fuel increases can benefit ,as they do in Germany, Austria and Scandanavia. Then forest residues and management timber will be appropriate and will lead to rural, sustainable suppliers on a smaller,local scale. This is what Dr Geoff Hogan means,I don't believe he advocates massive power plants. The 85% efficiency applies to the conversion of wood biomass into hot water for heating. The smaller commercial and domestic pellet and wood chip boilers achieve this and are certified by the Microgeneration Certification Scheme,boilers have to meet the EN 303-5 standard.There is also a standard for woodfuel quality. The big plants could kill any chance of widespread acceptance of sustainable biomass in the UK. John Penfold (new entrant in the biomass business )


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