Woody addiction: Biomass is the UK’s dirty little secret to getting clean

Lauded internationally for reducing its coal dependency and cleaning up its economy, the United Kingdom’s energy transition has a dirty little secret: biomass. Misclassified as renewable and carbon free, tallying the biodiversity and environmental impacts of burning biomass depends on nuance: how tight the regulations are, how fast a forest can grow back, and how well you can tweak your numbers. Now the world leader in burning trees to make electricity, scientific evidence is piling up questioning biomass’ claims to climate neutrality. A new study by energy thinktank Ember, The Burning Question, alongside other ongoing citizen climate campaigns, demands London curtails future subsidies while tightening biomass’ dubious carbon loophole. L. Michael Buchsbaum reports.


The United Kingdom’s energy mix has a surprisingly high share of biomass. (Photo by Adam Derewecki, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Cause for celebration

By creating incentives to phase out coal, the United Kingdom has reduced its carbon emissions nearly 30% since 2010 according to a recent study by Carbon Brief. Massive investments in wind and other renewables has enabled the UK throughout this year to go weeks without burning a single lump of coal.

“It’s a massive structural change and an actual reason for celebration,” said Ember’s Charles Moore, one of the main authors of the Burning Question from his home office in London. “We are, after all, the birthplace of the industrial revolution.”

Through the end of March this year, new data from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) shows that renewables generated 47% of UK’s electricity–a record high. Wind, both on and offshore, generated some 30% of that total. Fossil gas use fell from 42% down to 31%, and coal slumped down to just 5%. To put it in context, as late as 2012 coal represented 40% of the UK’s electricity production. Since then, the EU’s renewable policies and Westminster’s specific interpretations of them, have driven a massive reduction in overall emissions.

“But the elephant in the room remains biomass,” continued Moore. BEIS reports bioenergy accounted for a record 11.3 percent of total U.K. power generation in 2019 and 16.7 percent of capacity.

Dubious loophole  

Back in 2009, the EU committed itself to 20% renewable energy by 2020 and included biomass on the list of renewable-energy sources, categorizing it as “carbon neutral”. Several countries, in particular the UK, embraced bioenergy and began subsidizing the biomass industry. Currently around half of all the EU’s renewable energy comes from biomass–and this figure is rising.

Biomass’ alleged greenness is highly dependent on matrix of complex, nuanced arguments, that are often contradictory, and under nature’s rules, necessarily hypothetical. With biomass, emissions intensity relates to a period of time. It takes time for the forest to grow back and therefore theoretically recapture that emitted CO2. “It’s a necessarily imprecise science,” reminded Moore.

“Climate neutral it certainly isn’t,” said Moore. “We should be cautious when biomass is touted as a green solution.” When one counts the actual carbon impacts of biomass, not just the carbon released from burning wood, but the overall lifecycle impacts, then the emissions levels are often quite high. “Under the current regulations, we cannot be confident that burning biomass is a low carbon solution over timescales that matter for climate action,” said Moore. But indeed it’s difficult to say anything with confidence regarding biomass.

That’s why, to ensure that production meets established standards, “you need sharp international regulations,” Moore continued. But the vast majority of the UK’s biomass is coming from America, where the industry is now largely self-regulating. Last year the U.S. exported some 6 million metric tons of biomass to the EU, primarily from forests within the rural southeast. The latest figures from April show that US producers shipped over 475,000 tons of pelletized forest material into the UK, up by 27.7% from last year.

Subsidized sleight of hand

Though several power stations within the mostly-Brexited United Kingdom burn biomass, none eats up as much forest mass per day as does Drax. Located in North Yorkshire, for decades the 3.9 GW plant was the nation’s largest polluter. But over the last decade Drax converted 4 of its 6 coal-burning units to biomass. Now marketing itself as “the biggest renewable generator in the UK and the largest decarbonisation project in Europe,” it produces around 18 terawatt-hours (TWh) a year, 75% of which is derived from burning “sustainable” biomass. The plant covers over 5% of the nation’s overall electricity, including an average of 12% of the UK’s total renewable energy.

According to Drax’s PR department, their operation has slashed CO2 by over 80% since 2012. Also according to Drax: in 2019 its facility emitted 12.8 million tonnes of “low-carbon” CO2 solely from the combustion of biomass. The “fact” that both those figures are true is what’s so problematic about burning biomass.

Despite accumulating science showing that biomass isn’t nearly as clean and green as initially considered, in 2018 the UK (with support from the U.S.) blocked the EU Commission from tightening the bloc’s overall biomass policies. But Westminster did introduce new rules to effectively stop subsidies for new wood-burning power stations—beginning in 2027.

But between now and then, according to Ember’s new report, The Burning Question, the government is set to send at least another £10bn to Drax alone. Future subsidies in excess of £3 billion will be heading to other biomass plants as well. Combined, Ember estimates biomass generators will receive combined tax breaks in excess of £333 million a year.

Leveraging their flawed carbon neutrality logic, Drax is now bidding to become the world’s first “carbon negative” company over the next decade by burning biomass in conjunction with experimental carbon capture and sequestration technology—ostensibly subsidized as well. On the way, Drax is also requesting government approval to convert their two remaining coal boilers into massive fossil gas units. Just recently they won UK approval to become the largest gas plant in the UK and potentially in Europe as well.

Though Ember isn’t comfortable saying objectively that all biomass is worse for the climate than fossil fuels, Moore can’t see any scenario where they would advocate for it over wind or solar for electricity production. “Biomass supply is finite and it should only be considered where there are no alternatives. For electricity, wind and solar are much lower risk – and cheaper – options.”

Given how far the UK has come with wind and other objectively renewable energy sources, clearly the nation has better options than burning more trees, fossil gas and taxpayer money.

by

L. Michael Buchsbaum

L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende.

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