U.K. DECC model confirms GHG benefits of North American pellets

By Erin Voegele | July 24, 2014

On July 24, the U.K. Department of Energy and Climate Change reported that scientific analysis has proven that biomass from North America can help decarbonize U.K. electricity supplies. The analysis is the result of a scientific calculator that investigates the impact on carbon emissions of biomass sourced from North America to produce electricity. That calculator finds that responsibly sourced biomass can be used in a low carbon and sustainable way.

“In the short term, biomass can help us decarbonize our electricity supplies, and we are committed to supporting cost-effective, sustainably produced biomass,” said Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey. “This calculator shows that, done well, biomass can offer real carbon savings – which is why we are tightening our rules for sustainable biomass. Any producer who doesn’t meet those standards will lose financial support from next year.”

The calculator, also known as the Bioenergy Emissions and Counterfactual Model, was developed by the DECC and can be used by developers to ensure biomass is sourced responsibly. According to the DECC, the model takes into account changes in the amount of carbon stored in forests over the lifetime of a biomass project.

“The calculator looks at the changes in the amount of carbon stored in forests in North America when assessing the benefits and impacts of various bioenergy scenarios,” said David MacKay, chief scientific advisor at the DECC. It gives new information about which biomass resources are likely to have higher or lower carbon intensities, and so provides insight into a complex topic.”

A technical report on the calculator, titled “Life Cycle Impacts of Biomass Electricity in 2020,” investigates a wide range of scenarios on the North American pellet industry, including current scenarios and potential future scenarios that could come to pass in a world with increased demand for biomass, such as pellets from wood derived from new, dedicated plantations. The scenarios range from those that are likely to happen to those that are possible but implausible.

The authors of the report conclude that in 2020 it may be possible to meet the U.K.’s demand for solid biomass for electricity using biomass feedstocks from North America that result in electricity with greenhouse gas (GHG) intensities lower than 200 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per MWh (kg CO2e/MWh) when fully accounting for changes in land carbon stock changes. The report, however, also notes that some other bioenergy scenarios could lead to high GHG intensities, meaning those greater than electricity from coal when analyzed over 40 or 100 years, but would be found to have GHG intensities less than 200 kg CO2e/MWh by the Renewable Energy Directive LCA methodology.

The report also concludes that the energy input requirement of biomass electricity generated from North American wood by the U.K. in 2020 is likely to range from 0.13 to 0.96 MWh energy carrier input per MWh delivered energy. The report specifies this is significantly greater than other electricity generating technologies. According to the report, the energy input requirement is the smallest when transport distances are minimized, the moisture content of biomass is reduced by passive drying and drying using local biomass as fuel, and when the energetic efficiency of the technology is maximized.

The U.S. Industrial Pellet Association has spoken out to welcome the release of the calculator, noting it can play an important role in demonstrating that biomass from the U.S. produced from sawmill residues, thinnings and other low-value fiber can significantly reduce greenhouse gas and carbon emissions that will remain a valuable energy resource in mitigating climate change. The USIPA, however, also stressed that the calculator does not consider some of the factors that promote sustainable forest management in the U.S.

“We are pleased to see the U.K. take the initiative to create a tool that will verify that responsibly sourced biomass is sustainable and carbon beneficial. This calculator, along with the U.K.’s strong sustainability requirements for biomass, can help policy makers with understanding the industry, and assist producers with ensuring their product is sustainable,” said USIPA Executive Director Seth Ginther.

However, it should be noted that the calculator does not consider the economic, regulatory, and social conditions that also promote sustainable forest management in the U.S.,” Ginther continued. “The U.K. government should use the BEaC calculator in conjunction with these aspects of the industry to determine the full carbon benefits that the biomass life-cycle can bring. We look forward to working with the U.K. to continue to deliver this affordable, low-carbon energy source that is keeping the lights on while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

The Drax Goup plc has also weighed in on the DECC’s announcement, noting the North American focus area of the study was identified several years ago by Drax as one of its source areas due to the abundance of biomass that met the company’s own robust sustainability criteria.

“Sustainability has always been absolutely central to our biomass strategy. The academic study by DECC confirms what Drax has always argued, that there is a right way to source biomass and a wrong way. We welcome that it confirms the fact that where biomass is sourced sustainably major carbon savings can be delivered,” said Dorothy Thompson, chief executive of Drax.

“This study adds to the growing breadth of analysis on sustainable sourcing of biomass as a fuel for low carbon electricity generation. We look forward to working closely with U.K. Government and other EU stakeholders to improve further the knowledge and analysis in this complex area,” she continued.

“When we complete our plans to convert three of our generating units to burn sustainable biomass in place of coal we will be able to deliver cost effective, renewable electricity to the equivalent of over three million homes and reduce our carbon emissions by over 10 million tons a year,” Thompson said. “No other renewable can make such an impact and provide electricity at scale day-in, day-out whatever the weather.”

Copies of the technical report, BEAC model, and a user guide for the model can be downloaded from the DECC website here