Comment: There’s right and wrong ways to develop the UK’s biomass

By Nigel Adams MP

The challenge facing renewable energy in the UK can be summed up by two events which took place on the same day in early July. On the day that the energy and climate change secretary announced the opening of the world's largest wind farm, the London Array, RWE npower also announced that it is closing its plant at Tilbury which was temporarily converted to burn biomass in 2011. Tilbury may have reached the end of its working life, and there is not much we can do about that. But it does mean 630MW of relatively expensive, intermittent electricity generation capacity came online, just as the country learnt it would be losing 750MW of relatively cheap, reliable and flexible renewable generation capacity.

As chair of the all-party biomass group I am acutely aware that the answer to our renewable energy needs cannot lie solely in intermittent forms of generation. We need to replace fossil fuel based capacity with reliable, flexible forms of generation which reduce emissions of carbon dioxide but without putting undue upward pressure on electricity bills. Realistically that means sustainable biomass will be a critical part of our energy mix at least until other forms of flexible power such as fossil fuel technology fitted with carbon capture and storage become available.

I am proud that two of the country's largest power stations, Drax and Eggborough, are in my constituency. They provide up to 11% of the UK's electricity and have the ability to provide both baseload power and to respond to sudden changes in demand. Both are now planning to make the transition to sustainable biomass and Drax converted its first unit in April. Using biomass in place of coal in an existing power station means that every MWh of electricity generated from biomass is one less MWh produced using coal, which when taken out of the earth's crust and burnt unabated results in a net increase in atmospheric carbon. It is also good value as it makes use of existing assets, grid connections and rail connections. In fact, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (Decc) reports that meeting the UK's 2050 carbon targets would cost £44bn more without biomass.

In the case of Drax Power Station, the UK's biggest single source of carbon emissions is turning into one of the world's largest renewable electricity generators. That is something of which we can all be very proud. Once complete, sustainable biomass will halve Drax's carbon footprint on today's levels. That means at Drax alone ten million fewer tonnes of coal-derived CO2 which had previously been locked underground, will be released into the atmosphere very year. Similar reductions are expected at Eggborough.

I have been very careful to use the phrase ‘sustainable biomass'. There is a right way to develop the UK's biomass supply chain and a wrong way. The case for including biomass in the electricity generation mix only adds up if the biomass used is genuinely from sustainable sources and therefore delivers major carbon savings. Strong and independently verified sustainability criteria must cover a range of issues from biodiversity through economic considerations to social rights, but above all we need to be sure that the biomass we are using is delivering carbon reductions. Ultimately that comes down to how well forests are being managed, which can only be properly assured through robust sustainability standards.

Carbon emissions associated with each step of the supply chain from harvesting through to production and transportation are already monitored and over the full life cycle resulting from burning biomass in place of coal it is not unrealistic to expect the greenhouse gas savings to be well above 60% or even 80%. The biomass itself can be considered carbon neutral when burnt as long as less wood fibre is extracted than is being added through growth, and so the forest maintains or increases the amount of carbon it contains at all times. When Decc announces its new sustainability in the next few weeks we should expect that policy to put an obligation on generators to ensure that this is the case. That means we can be sure that, unlike with coal, we are not contributing to a net increase in atmospheric carbon at the point of combustion.

You might expect increased demand for biomass to increase pressure on forests but that misunderstands a crucial thing about the forest industry: demand for wood stimulates supply which in turn stimulates increased carbon sequestration. It is important to understand that forests are not grown and harvested purely for biomass. In fact biomass is typically a by-product, left over from processes such as thinning the forest or residues of wood grown to serve other industries such as construction, paper and pulp. Last year I visited the US and saw for myself that the forests are vast. Current removals from US forests are nearly 320 million dry tons. This level of harvest is well below net annual forest growth and only a small fraction of the total standing timberland inventory. Forest growth exceeds removals by at least 70% according to the US government. Even after the 320 million tons mentioned above have been removed and a proportion has been left behind for biodiversity sustainability purposes, total logging residue and other residues which are left in US forests currently amount to nearly 93 million dry tons annually – those wasted thinnings and residues, left in forests, from just one country are far higher than UK, or even EU demand will ever be.

US forest cover is increasing and so the amount of carbon contained in US forests is increasing: the US Environmental Protection Agency reports that the amount of carbon contained in US forests is around a third higher now than it was in 1991. The US Department of Agriculture Forest Service says forest cover has been increasing for over 50 years with standing volume increasing by 50% since the 1950s. At the same time net volume per acre has increased 94% since 1953 thanks to better forest management. The US forest estate now stands at 751 million acres, the same figure as in 2010.

The use of sustainable biomass to generate electricity in place of fossil fuels helps to sustain a virtuous circle which not only reduces the amount of new carbon added to the atmosphere but also reduces pressure on foresters to convert their land to another use, increases forest growth and means forests can absorb more carbon than would otherwise be the case. I am proud Britain, and the government I support, is a strong proponent of sustainable biomass and equally proud that two companies in my constituency are at the forefront of efforts to reduce our carbon emissions without costing my constituents the earth.

Nigel Adams is the Conservative MP for Selby and Ainsty in North Yorkshire. He chairs the all-party parliamentary group on biomass.

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