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REA: Modelling our way to biomass paralysis


Stewart Boyle has been working in the solid biomass sector for more than a decade. Attending a recent DECC workshop on ‘Biomass Sustainability’ he was shocked by what he saw and heard and what he fears will be another unwarranted attack on bioenergy…

In good faith I and colleagues recently attended a DECC Workshop supposedly on ‘Sustainability in Biomass’. It was intended as an ‘open review’ of work to date using the BEAC model to ascertain how sustainable various bioenergy scenarios were.

What followed was nothing short of a travesty, lacking in balance and, in my view, a massive ‘own goal’ by DECC. They presented a number of biopower fuel scenarios which, bar one, all showed that using bioenergy to produce electricity was worse in carbon terms than the current status quo. For example, they presented a scenario that used ‘under-managed broadleaf woodland’ in a large power plant. Clearly no one in industry is talking of doing this, yet it was presented as a serious scenario. Why? The QED for all this seemed to be - give up bioenergy and go home!

The so-called ‘open review’ exercise was attended by environmental NGOs who clearly don’t like bioenergy, and particularly biopower. The 2012 ‘Dirtier than Coal?’ report by RSPB, FOE and Greenpeace, which implied that power from bioenergy was 49% worse than coal plant, was an appalling study. Completely lacking in objectivity or scientific rigour, it built its case on a single extreme ‘chop all the trees down’ scenario picked by the report’s researcher Tim Searchinger. The same scenario was expressly rejected by the very researchers who identified it in a previous detailed report for DECC [1].

Hot foot from the DECC seminar, Ken Richter of FOE was gleefully blogging that: “All scenarios that include the intensification of forest management resulted in higher emissions than the UK grid average…..While DECC pointed out that these results are preliminary and will undergo further fine-tuning over the coming months, the overall picture from this is very clear.” The following day, renowned climate change denier and anti-renewables columnist Christopher Booker was writing in The Daily Mail that: “Friends of the Earth scorn the idea that wood chips are ‘carbon neutral’ or that felling millions of acres of American forests, to turn trees into chips and then transporting those chips thousands of miles to Yorkshire, will end up making any significant net reduction in ‘carbon’ emissions.”

If burning trees and other biomass really was worse than coal, then I’m sure a number of REA members would be horrified and have to pack up and go home. However, the DECC modelling exercise is built on sand and has been presented so far in a very unbalanced way. Like all modelling exercises, it all depends on the assumptions fed into it, including what happens if trees/plants are not used for bioenergy. If you take a scenario where the biomass fuel being used is ‘stolen’ from the furniture or construction industries, releases carbon from trees early before they mature, and significant soil carbon gets released, then bioenergy won’t look good in carbon terms. Is this a reality however?

Not so says John Bingham of Hawkins Wright, who has looked at the forestry situation in the South East of USA where a proportion of fuel for co-firing at Drax and other UK coal plant comes from. According to Bingham: “the biomass that will be imported from the southern USA comes almost exclusively from forest thinnings, from sawmill residues – i.e. sawdust and shavings – or from poor quality wood for which there is no alternative market”. Dr Nigel Mortimer, who along with colleagues from North Energy Associates and Forestry Research identified hundreds of scenarios and counterfactuals in the above report for DECC, tried to answer the question: ‘Is it better to leave wood in the forest or harvest it for timber, other wood products (e.g. panel boards) and/or fuel?’ He and colleagues concluded that: “Management of UK forests for wood production can contribute to UK carbon objectives e.g. to 2050…….Using wood for bioenergy can also reduce carbon emissions, compared to burning fossil fuels for energy…..These results suggest that policy should support managing UK forests to produce wood for products and bioenergy”.

None of these more balanced sets of conclusions made it into the DECC workshop, or are even acknowledged by the NGOs. In the same way that the ILUC modelling debate has been prematurely used to cut the EU liquid biofuels target in half to 5%, and put under threat ‘second generation’ biofuels investment, so the choice of scenarios and assumptions made by DECC for biopower is questionable.

To be blunt, a combination of forest products industries who want to keep their wood raw material really cheap, environmental NGOs, and I feel, some anti-bioenergy bias by the DECC Chief Scientist Professor David Mackay, has played right into the hands of anti-climate change and anti-renewables columnists and politicians. I think the bioenergy community needs to get fully engaged, and realise that unless they argue their case strongly the business is under threat from people who don’t really care about balance or objectivity.

I have written to Professor Mackay asking what his true intentions are. I told him that: “Openness is great but what you have done is give known opponents of any kind of biopower a shotgun to blast away at companies and researchers honestly trying to understand (the issue) and get something moving that actually saves carbon emissions”. Professor Mackay’s book on energy policy a few years back was very negative to bioenergy. Is this personal view now affecting how we in the bioenergy community are being treated?

In case you think that all of this a bit of an anti-NGO rant, think again. I spent 10 years working for groups like Greenpeace and FOE trying to do my bit for the planet. I’m proud of what we achieved on energy policy. I’m also pretty glad that NGOs are around, as the world would be a diminished place without them. However, right now I feel that some of the NGOs have lost the plot on bioenergy and are using ‘bad science’ for political and internal ‘positioning’ reasons.

It is much easier to campaign ‘aginst’ things as an NGO than to be ‘for’ things. Being ‘for’ things usually means a compromise. The technology for renewables is evolving and isn’t perfect. Costs are higher now than they will be. ‘First generation’ liquid biofuels and biopower aren’t as beneficial as ‘second generation’ technologies will be. The 90% efficient wood heating boilers you can buy today evolved from the 60% efficient boilers in the market place 25 years ago. Yet I suspect the NGOs would have tried to ‘kill off’ these boilers today rather than encourage the technology evolution that has taken place. As Clare Wenner of REA remarked to me recently: “don’t let the tyranny of perfection kill the path of simple positive actions.”

With the likes of Biofuelwatch jumping at any signs of the big NGOs going soft on bioenergy, they are responding with so-called radical positions that garner good headlines, but at the risk of killing off all bioenergy options.

We all know that co-firing is a transition technology. It gets much-needed quick carbon reductions, builds fuel investment and infrastructure, and some momentum in the market as newer technologies are developed. However, if large scale biopower companies were not around then I’d guess that at least three UK wood pellet manufacturers and a good proportion of the SRC ‘energy crop’ growers would have no market and probably be out of business. I for one am glad Drax is going for biomass. We can all acknowledge more efficient uses of biomass and improved GHG savings, but Drax Group and others don’t deserve the criticism they have been getting from NGOs, nor do they deserve the renewed kicking that may result from DECCs modelling fiasco.

I think all the people who have been working incredibly hard to get real world low carbon investments moving in the UK should right now be justified in feeling betrayed by DECC in this modelling exercise. DECC must know that nobody is objective when it comes to using modelling results to underpin stated policy positions – it becomes pure politics and who can shout the loudest.

I wrote to Professor Mackay recently and asked: “unless you are clearly or subtly stating that DECC are now anti-biomass, then I think some urgent redress by you is needed. At the very least you should write to the NGOs present and point out that the way they are distorting the preliminary results is incorrect and a travesty of the actual work and full range of results to come. How can the bioenergy business sector have any confidence in working with you in the light of the above?”

I’ll let you know how he responds.