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Business Green: Climate Committee, Biomass has "no role" in electricity production without CCS


Large-scale biomass power plants have "no appropriate role" in future electricity generation without carbon capture technology the government's emissions reduction advisors will say today, prompting further criticism of the decision to delay a promised £1bn of support for a large scale carbon capture demonstration project.

A new report from the influential Committee on Climate Change (CCC) will say that meeting the UK's overall 2050 emissions targets will be difficult unless bioenergy increases it share of the country's energy mix from two per cent to 10 per cent.

But it warns that in order to maximise emissions reductions carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology will have to be fitted to biomass power plants, in a move that would effectively remove carbon from the atmosphere.

The committee advises that if CCS proves unfeasible the UK must ditch biomass power plants and focus its biomass resources on heat generation, assuming that technological breakthroughs, such as algae-based fuels, do not emerge and provide sustainable biomass materials.

The report calculates that deploying biomass power plants without CCS could force the UK to roll out large numbers of such facilities in order to meet its emission reduction requirements, risking increased emissions elsewhere as a result of the deforestation and land use changes that could be required to provide sufficient biomass feedstocks.

The report follows the government's decision to transfer an as yet unspecified amount of the £1bn budget set aside for CCS to finance a new package of infrastructure projects after it failed to agree a deal to fund the UK's first demonstration project at Longannet.

David Kennedy, chief executive of the CCC, told BusinessGreen the indication that the government will not be spending significant amounts on CCS technology until the next Parliament "doesn't give a good signal" to the sector.

Kennedy warned demonstration projects of around 300MW need to start in 2013 and come online by 2017 if the government wants to use commercial-scale biomass for power generation in the future.

"The government needs to make good on the commitment to having four [CCS] projects," he said. "We need clear milestones for moving projects forward in the next few months. If we don't have projects commencing until the next parliament it would put us back a long way."

Although it estimates a large proportion of the feedstock could be sourced from the UK, the CCC report warns any biomass energy targets will need to remain "flexible" until stringent sustainability regulations can be put in place to ensure feedstocks are harvested in a manner that does not result in uncontrolled deforestation and a net increase in emissions.

"The killer number is the UK currently consumes around 30MT wood, of which 1MT is biomass," Kennedy said. "We're looking at up to 25MT in power generation - effectively doubling the overall wood demand. That's pushing the limits of sustainable demand... and the worry is that we'd be felling trees in an unsustainable way."

The CCC is also calling on the government to remove support for electricity production from large scale dedicated biomass plants, which currently receive 1.5 Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) per megawatt hour (MWh) under the Renewables Obligation (RO) scheme.

Kennedy argued that converting coal plants to biomass or co-firing biomass with fossil fuels represents a much cheaper way of delivering low-carbon power, but because both approaches currently receive only 1 ROC they are less attractive to investors.

"You've got two choices - you can either use biomass in converted coal plants or build new large scale biomass stations," he said. "There's a very big difference in the associated costs, which raises the question why would you pay a £60 per MW premium to get the same thing in carbon terms?"

However, bioenergy does have a role in sectors such as heavy industry, shipping and aviation, Kennedy added, although he argued that electric and fuel-cell powered cars will have a bigger role in decarbonising surface transportation.

"You use bioenergy where no alternative to decarbonisation exists," he said. "You can't have electric planes or electric ships so biofuels make sense."

A Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) spokesman said the government would respond to the CCC's recommendations as part of its forthcoming bioenergy strategy, due to be published early next year.

While he could not give details on the government's revised plans for funding CCS projects, he reiterated the government's commitment to the technology and added the timetable for new projects would be outlined in a soon-to-be-released "accelerated timetable".

Kenneth Richter, biofuels campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said it was vital to reduce the UK's ambition for bioenergy and move towards clean-energy alternatives.

"Big industrial power stations burning huge quantities of imported wood pose a real threat to the world's forests - they should not be supported by taxpayers' money," he said in a statement.

"Instead Ministers should back small-scale UK biomass sources like slurry and food waste - and focus on meeting our energy needs by developing clean energy from wind, sun and waves."