News – UK – Biomass Power: Is The UK’s Second Largest Renewable Energy Source Sustainable?


Over the past few decades, biomass burning has played an increasingly important role in the UK’s electricity supply, however there have long been concerns about the sustainability of biomass power Daisy Dunne examines the arguments

The rise in renewable energy in the UK has taken place at an astonishing pace. Last year, renewables overtook fossil fuels and became the country’s largest source of electricity for the first time. p>

Wind energy has played the leading role in transforming the national electricity grid. It now supplies almost a quarter of the electricity. In 2010 it supplied only 3 percent

The UK’s second largest source of renewable electricity is the burning of “biomass” – a term used for organic fuels such as wood, other types of plant material and animal waste Biomass made up around 12 percent of UK electricity in 2020

While academics and environmental groups in general broadly support wind energy, the burning of biomass – especially wood and its by-products – for electricity in the UK has long been considered controversial by some

It is argued that it is theoretically renewable to take wood from managed forests and burn it to generate electricity. This is because the CO2 released from burning wood can be “recovered” by planting new trees in its place When trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and use it to build new shoots, roots and leaves (It is also sometimes argued that if trees are not harvested and burned, they will eventually die and their stored CO2 will be released back into the atmosphere anyway would)

In 2009, the EU explicitly referred to biomass power as “renewable technology” in its directive on renewable energies – a set of rules that the bloc developed in order to achieve the goal of generating 20 percent of its energy from renewable energies in 2020

The move resulted in tremendous growth in biomass power development in European countries, including the UK, according to analysts. The rapid growth was aided by the fact that it is relatively cheap and easy to convert existing coal-fired power plants into biomass stations

Drax power station in North Yorkshire, which provides around 7 percent of UK electricity, is by far the UK’s largest biomass user. Four of its six units now burn wood pellets instead of coal (Lynemouth Station in Northumberland is another biomass power station)

As a recipient of substantial government subsidies, Drax has received particular scrutiny from scientists and environmental groups

With relatively little harvestable wood available in the UK, Drax imports the majority of its wood pellets from other countries including the US, Canada, Brazil and several European countries (UK is the world’s largest importer of wood pellets)

Drax says the biomass it burns “comes from sustainably managed working forests that grow back and remain as forests” The wood pellets are mainly made from “by-products” from other industries such as “sawn timber and furniture”

However, NGOs and activists have long accused Drax of sourcing its timber imports in an unsustainable manner.In 2019, an investigation by the Daily Telegraph accused Drax of sourcing wood from ancient forests in Belarus and Russia

Drax was once again criticized by campaign groups this week when he announced plans to purchase Pinnacle Renewable Energy, a Canadian wood pellet maker

A report released by Booth, Canadian environmental group Earth, accused Pinnacle of sourcing wood from forests that are home to the southern mountain caribou, an animal that is threatened with habitat loss

In a statement, Tegan Hansen, forest fighter at Booth Earth in British Columbia said, “UK residents may be shocked to learn that their energy is generated by burning some of the last remaining ancient and natural forests in British Columbia where Endangered wildlife such as caribou live and which are among the most carbon-rich in the world ”

In response, Drax said it has “the highest biomass sustainability standards in the world” and “plans to ensure that all operations adhere to these standards to drive improvements across the industry worldwide”

However, it was also announced this week that one of Drax’s existing wood pellet production facilities in Mississippi will be fined $ 2.55 for violating environmental regulations and causing health problems for local communities

According to the final mandate from Mississippi regulators, Drax’s manufacturing facility had spent several years releasing harmful amounts of volatile organic compounds that have been linked to the development of health conditions such as asthma and pulmonary dysfunction

“It is a relief to see Drax being held accountable for the air pollution in Mississippi, but these fines are a drop in the bucket compared to the millions the UK government is giving the company Subsidies for biomass passes, “said Sasha Stashwick from the Cut Carbon Not Forests Campaign, a coalition of US and UK NGOs, it says in a statement

In response to the fine, a Drax spokesperson said, “The safety of our employees and the communities in which we operate is a priority. We take our environmental responsibilities seriously and are committed to complying with all local and state regulations

“We’re monitoring our emissions, and when we found our emissions at our Amite Pellet Mill in Gloster, Mississippi, they were above the required level for volatile organic compounds (VOC), we notified the regional environmental authority.

“We worked closely with the agency to solve the problem, invested in the necessary equipment and already started work to adapt the necessary equipment as soon as possible July this year to be completed ”

Even if biomass comes from “sustainably managed” forests, according to researchers, environmental and climate problems can arise

One longstanding criticism is that the assumption that the CO2 released by burning wood can be recovered through new forest growth is often incorrect in practice, says Phil MacDonald, chief operating officer at Ember, a climate and energy thinking tank in Great Britain

A Drax site in Mississippi is fined $ 25m for violating environmental regulations

“[It’s] theoretically correct – it’s just that even a small deviation from theory in practice can result in total life cycle emissions that can be greater than coal,” he tells The Independent

For example, if old trees are felled and burned to generate electricity, it will take a long time for newly planted seedlings to absorb the same amount of CO2 that the larger trees have after storage, researchers have argued

Scientists have warned that this could lead to “carbon debt” – a time lag before the CO2 released by burning biomass can be offset by the growth of new forests, estimates of how long this time lag can range from decades to too Centuries and depend heavily on the type of wood or wood by-product that is harvested and what is planted to replace it

This time lag is important to consider, according to scientists, as countries will need to reduce their emissions as quickly as possible in the coming decades in order to limit global warming to “well below” 2 ° C above pre-industrial levels by 2100 Paris Agreement Some have argued that biomass power cannot be considered “renewable” due to carbon debt in periods relevant to the Paris target

The idea that the trees used for biomass production would eventually die and release their stored CO2 if they weren’t used to generate electricity from biomass has also been questioned by scientists.One reason is that trees grown in the Soil that remains and is not harvested, likely to absorb more CO2 in the course of its life – and some of it is transferred to the soil when it dies

Many other questions about the sustainability of biomass power have been raised. For example, researchers have raised concerns that the wood needed for biomass production takes up valuable land – potentially increasing the risk to animal and food production

The UK’s independent climate advisors published a report on biomass in 2018. They recommended that the country, after the existing government subsidies expire in 2027, abandon the burning of biomass in power plants – unless emissions from the plants can be controlled using the ” Carbon capture and storage, a technology not yet available on a scale

The Climate Change Committee report also states that there needs to be stricter rules on the types of biomass imports used in the UK

“As a rule, unsustainable or” high-risk raw materials “- raw materials from primary forests with high carbon content, high biodiversity or slow-growing forests – should be regulated and best practices promoted,” the report said

A Drax site in Mississippi is fined $ 25m for violating environmental regulations

Would you like to bookmark your favorite articles and stories for later reading or reference? Start your Independent Premium Subscription


Biomass, Renewable Energy, Sustainability

News – UK – Biomass Power: Is Britain’s Second Largest Renewable Energy Source Sustainable?