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Utility Week: The IPCC says bioenergy is “critical,” so where are the supportive policies?


We urgently need to phase out the use of coal and oil for energy and replace them with low carbon technologies such as renewables. A “tripling or quadrupling” of clean energy is needed by 2050 to keep to the 450ppm/two degrees limit in 2100. Continual improvements to energy efficiency and land use are also emphasised, as well as the transitional role of gas.

This report also opens a new chapter in a story not often told. Back in 2011, then Energy Minister Charles Hendry told a Back Biomass parliamentary reception that the potential for net negative emissions from biomass with carbon capture and storage (CCS) was “the holy grail of renewables,” as reported in Utility Week.

The IPCC has dramatically advanced the terms of this debate. Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage now has its own neat acronym – BECCS – and is described as a “key technology” for efforts to stabilise greenhouse gas (GHG) levels in the latter half of this century.

Put simply, several of the IPCC’s mitigation scenarios envisage an “overshoot,” i.e. that after 2050 we’ll have to start sucking GHGs out of the air because we’ll already have exceeded 450ppm. This is slightly alarming, as it suggests a lack of confidence that governments will actually step up their mitigation measures fast enough in the first half of this century to prevent an overshoot.

Leaving alone the overshoot question for now, another issue is that both bioenergy and CCS face uncertain futures. 2050 is a long way off, but the current state of play does not point towards a bright future for BECCS.

For starters, CCS itself, never mind BECCS, still feels like a holy grail. It is still not proven at scale, and as far as ‘bolt-on’ solutions go, it has major hurdles. For instance, power stations tend to be near population centres or fuel sources rather than coastlines, so the piping to take CO2 out to the seabed would be very expensive and probably controversial.

However, what CCS does have going for it is that it fits with the conventional “burn fuel, get flexible output” operating model of the energy establishment – unlike decentralised and intermittent renewables, which are rather viewed as disruptive.

Biomass also fits with the energy establishment’s operating model, more or less. In this arena, though, the fact of it being “renewable” counts against it, and can cause it to be taken less seriously. It is even less loved, though, by the green NGOs, who have a deep rooted distrust of anything even remotely resembling the energy establishment’s operating model.

The same goes for biofuels, which remain vital for decarbonisation as long as the internal combustion engine remains dominant – but oil companies are even more hated by green NGOs than power companies!

Outside the REA, it’s tricky to find vocal champions for bioenergy right now, and as a result, both biomass and biofuels are falling through the cracks in government policy.

Of course there are very important issues to consider around land use change, habitat protection and commodity market impacts. I don’t apologise for the REA cheerleading bioenergy publicly, because we substantively engage with these specific matters behind the scenes. But I am not seeing the same level of engagement from bioenergy’s critics. What I am seeing is lots of very emotive, unscientific and simplistic – yet effective – campaigning.

And here is the crux. Regardless of BECCS, bioenergy has “a critical role” to play in mitigation, the IPCC says. It is the glue that holds renewables together. Its versatility and flexibility enable it to deliver low carbon energy in the form we need – heat, power or fuel – when we need it, making it easier to accommodate the intermittent renewables. It also produces co-products that can displace high-carbon fertilisers, chemicals and animal feed.

For the sake of the climate, for the sake of a high-renewables energy mix, and for the sake of BECCS (should we need it), a constructive, enlightened debate on how to achieve a sustainable bio-based economy is urgently needed. As REA chief executive, I am determined to bring together old energy, new energy, scientists, NGOs and government to make that happen.