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DECC: Response to Breathe Clean Air Group campaign about burning wood and biomass



Response from the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to the Breathe Clean Air Group about the Barton Renewable Energy Plant, and the Government’s policy on burning wood and biomass.

Thank you for your email dated 1 July, about the Barton Renewable Energy Plant, and the Government’s policy on burning wood and biomass.

I cannot, of course, comment on a particular planning case. However I would like to reassure you regarding two important aspects of Government policy.

Firstly, we recognise the importance that the biomass used for energy in UK is from sustainable sources and delivers genuine greenhouse gas (GHG) savings compared to fossil fuel use. We worked with our colleagues in Defra and the Department for Transport to develop a UK Bioenergy Strategy, published in April last year. The Strategy sets out principles for bioenergy policy and identifies priority uses for biomass that will together put the UK firmly on a sustainable path for bioenergy to 2050.

The Strategy identified the use of biomass waste for energy as a low-risk, priority pathway. One of the reasons for this is that biomass waste when it decays can emit methane. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with an estimated global warming potential that is 21 times that of carbon dioxide over a 100 year period. The Strategy is available: UK Bioenergy Strategy.

The UK government is proposing to introduce sustainability criteria to the Renewables Obligation and the Renewable Heat Incentive that would require the use of solid biomass and biogas to deliver a minimum 60% GHG lifecycle saving compared to fossil fuel use. The GHG lifecycle would consider the emissions from the cultivation, harvesting, processing and transport of the biomass, including international shipping where used. Our consultation proposals also included the introduction of new sustainable forest management criteria for the use of woodfuel that would include sustainable harvesting and replanting or regeneration rates in the forest.

  • Consultation on proposals to ensure sustainability and affordability for the use of biomass under the Renewables Obligation (RO)

The government response setting out final decisions on these important issues is due to be published shortly.

Secondly, there are controls in place to protect human health and the environment. A biomass plant using primarily waste wood would need to go through an extremely rigorous process for pollution control. It would likely be subject to the Environmental Permitting Regulations and the Waste Incineration Directive. These set out strict standards on all plants burning waste and cover a range of pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, heavy metals and dioxins. The Environment Agency will not grant the requisite permits for a plant to operate if a facility does not comply with these standards.

A permit would cover: limits on emissions to air, water, sewer, land and groundwater; disposal of ash; operating conditions such as temperature, oxygen and polluting gas concentrations; conditions on the fuel that can be burned; monitoring and reporting requirements; and conditions to achieve control of noise emissions and energy efficiency.

The Environment Agency would then regulate as follows: require continuous monitoring of the main pollutants for which limits are set and periodic monitoring for other substances; regular announced and unannounced inspections; investigating non-compliance with any condition of the permit; and taking enforcement action if needed, including issuing notices, prosecuting serious breaches or potentially revoking the permit.

Studies of the health of communities living in the vicinity of energy from waste plants have not established any convincing links between emissions and adverse effects on public health. Indeed, the latest scientific evidence on the health effects of modern municipal waste incinerators has been reviewed by the Health Protection Agency (HPA), which since March 2013 is part of Public Health England. Their report, published in September 2009, concludes that modern plants that are well run and regulated do not pose a significant threat to public health. The Health Protection Agency is not aware of any evidence that requires a change in the HPA’s position:

  • Public Health England: Position Statement on Municipal Solid Waste Incineration.

Edward Davey