UK sets sustainability standards for solid biomass, biogas

By Erin Voegele | August 22, 2013

The U.K. Department of Energy & Climate Change has announced that starting in 2015, the biomass industry must show its fuel is sustainable to receive financial support. According to information released by the DECC, all electricity generators of 1 megawatt (MW) capacity or higher that use solid biomass or biogas feedstock will be required to demonstrate that they are meeting certain sustainability criteria in order to claim support under the Renewables Obligation (RO). The DECC estimates the 1 MW threshold will cover approximately 98 percent of all biomass power generation in the U.K.

A press release issued by the DECC explains that these new criteria for sustainable forest management include elements related to sustainable harvesting rates, biodiversity protection, and land use rights for indigenous populations. The U.K. government will now also require generators with a capacity of 1 MW or higher to provide an independent sustainability audit with their annual sustainability report.

In order to provide certainty to investors and developers, the DECC has also stated that there will be no further unilateral changes to the sustainability criteria before April 2027.

“The Coalition is committed to delivering clean, affordable and secure energy for consumers,” said Greg Barker, Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change. “This includes an important role for biomass power as part of the UK’s energy mix. The new criteria will provide the necessary investor certainty and, crucially, ensure that the biomass is delivered in a transparent and sustainable way.”

A consultation paper on the government’s proposals for biomass sustainability under the RO was published in September 2012 and opened up for public comment. As part of the DECC’s Aug. 22 announcement, it published the government response to those comments, an impact assessment for the RO biomass sustainability criteria, and a NNFCC RO sustainability standards summary report. Those documents can all be accessed here.  

According to the government response, a total of 73 public responses were submitted that provided evidence in response to the 14 questions asked in September 2012 proposal. More than 2,000 addition comments were received in the form of letter campaigns by Friends of the Earth and other organizations.

Within the response document, the DECC specifies that the U.K. government has decided to implement sustainability controls for solid biomass and biogas that go beyond those currently recommended or required by the European Union and internationally. The changes to the RO sustainability criteria will be brought in as a requirement to report against performance starting in April 2014. According to the document, the EU aims to publish an updated report on the requirements for biomass sustainability for biomass and biogas used for electricity, heat and cooling by the end of the year. Once this report is published, the U.K. said it intends to notify its RO sustainability criteria to the EU, with the intention that the criteria for solid biomass and biogas will become mandatory starting in April 2015.

The document also addresses greenhouse gas (GHG) trajectories, noting that the biomass power installations using solid biomass and/or biogas will be placed on the same GHG trajectory as of April 1, 2020 whether or not they are new or existing, with or without combined-heat-and-power (CHP), are dedicated, standard cofiring, enhanced cofiring, coal-to-biomass conversion, advanced conversion technologies or anaerobic digestion.

The GHG trajectories for generators using solid biomass and/or biogas for new build dedicated biomass power, with or without CHP, receiving full accreditation on or after April 1, 2013 will be 240 kg CO2eq per MWh from April1, 2014 through March 31, 2020; 200 kg CO2eq per MWh from April 1, 2020 through March 31, 2025; and 180 kg CO2eq per MWH from April 1, 2025 through March 31, 2030. The GHG trajectory for all other biomass power will be 285 kg CO2eq per MWh from April 1, 2014 through March 31, 2020; 200 kg CO2eq per MWh from April 1, 2020 through March 31, 2025; and 180 kg CO2eq per MWH from April 1, 2025 through March 31, 2030

The document also notes the targets will represent an annual average, subject to the provision that any one consignment of solid biomass or biogas feedstock does not exceed the ceiling or 285 kgCO2eq per MWh from April 1, 2014 through March 31, 2020; 270 kg CO2eq per MWh from April 1, 2020 through March 31, 2025; and 260 kg CO2eq per MWh from April 1, 2025 through March 31, 2030.

Regarding land use and sustainable forest management criteria, the government documentation species that biomass power plants using solid biomass or biogas feedstock will be subject to land criteria whether or not it is a new or existing generating station or unit, is with or without CHP and is dedicated, coring or a coal-to-biomass conversion. Land criteria will be different for virgin wood and all other non-waste biomass, including energy crops. However, land criteria do not apply to biomass waste or feedstock wholly derived from waste. The document specifies that sustainable forest management criteria will be based on the U.K. Timber Procurement Policy and will be brought in for use for virgin wood feedstocks in April 2014. The TPP principles include a range of social, economic and environmental issues related to forests, including biodiversity, productivity and habitat protection. Land criteria for all other solid biomass and biogas feedstocks correspond to land use criteria established in the EU Renewable Energy Directive for transportation biofuels and bioliquiids.

The Renewable Energy Association has spoken out to welcome the new sustainability criteria, but is urging the government not to withdraw support from the construction of new biomass power plants under the forthcoming Contracts for Difference regime.

“These sustainability criteria ensure that the U.K .can reap the benefits of biomass, safe in the knowledge that it is making a real dent in our carbon emissions and that ecologically sensitive land is being protected,” said Nina Skorupska, chief executive of REA. “Biomass is a great way to bridge the looming capacity gap because it has all the same benefits as fossil fuels – such as reliability and flexibility of supply – but without the carbon impacts.”

The U.S. Pellet Association has also issued a statement, noting it is pleased by the DECC’s decision on sustainability standards on imported U.S. woody biomass. “The new criteria will ensure that biomass continues to be harvested in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner. Based on their long history of forest sustainability, including the continuation of increased carbon stocks, U.S. industrial wood pellet manufacturers are well poised to meet the criteria established by the DECC,” said Seth Ginther, executive director of the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association. “We are also pleased that the DECC’s report recognizes biomass as a long-term solution. Given this policy certainty, the US industrial wood pellet manufacturing industry is well poised to provide a much needed outlet for sustainable low-grade fiber helping keep working forests working for the long-term.”