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  • Tool demonstrates sustainable biomass can deliver cut in carbon emissions
  • However, model stops short of considering real-world practices and regulations that ensure sustainable forestry.


The UK’s biomass power sector has welcomed the publication of a biomass ‘carbon calculator’ by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) as a demonstration that biomass can help in the fight against climate change.

Biomass power projects in the UK use offcuts, thinnings and residues that would otherwise be incinerated or left to rot after high-value wood has been harvested and removed from the forest for other industries, such as construction. The Bioenergy and Counterfactuals Model (BEaC) examines how using these remaining low-grade materials for energy can help to cut the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The model looks at a range of scenarios for sourcing biomass, including from forests in the USA for large power plants in the UK, such as Drax. However, it does not consider factors such as UK and US environmental regulations, nor financial incentives for landowners to practise sustainable forestry. The author of the modelling tool acknowledges these limitations.


Untold carbon success story

Most forest land in the Southern US, where Drax sources much of its biomass, are owned by landowners whose land has been in their families for generations. Decades of careful stewardship have seen a growth in the region’s forests of around 97% between 1953 and 2007[1].

Helped by market investments in sustainable forestry, American forests increased carbon absorption from the atmosphere from 701m tonnes of CO2 per year to 922m tonnes of CO2 per year in 2010[2]. Biomass power is seen as key to supporting that growth and stability after the collapse of the region’s paper mill industry.


Robust regulation both here and abroad

The BEaC Model ‘calculator’ also does not consider the role of world-leading UK regulation, which ensures that the high standards of American and Canadian forestry are enforced wherever the UK sources its biomass for power generation.

DECC’s ‘Sustainability Criteria’ have been operating since 2011 and require biomass power generators to demonstrate an independently verifiable cut in carbon emissions of at least 60%, compared to the EU Fossil Fuel Grid Average – a key measure of fossil fuel emissions for electricity. The Criteria apply across the whole supply chain.

The UK’s Sustainability Criteria complement American and Canadian laws that protect forestry, such as: the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, Lacey Act and a range of State and Province regulations and laws.


The biomass industry welcomed the tool as evidence that biomass can be effective in cutting emissions:

Dr Nina Skorupska, Chief Executive of the Renewable Energy Association, said:

“This model is a very welcome demonstration that biomass, when sourced responsibly, should be a key part of our low-carbon energy mix.


“Of course it’s possible to do biomass badly – just like any other technology – but what these findings prove is that sustainable biomass generation can make a significant contribution to reducing greenhouse gases.


“What it doesn’t do, however, is consider the incentives – both financial and regulatory – to ensure a sustainable supply chain. It’s an under-reported success story that American foresters have been building up forest cover over generations. A market in biomass helps them to continue this work.


“On top of that, the UK has developed world-leading Sustainability Criteria that ensure at least a 60% cut in carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels, covering the entire supply chain. Some generators are achieving 90% reductions.


“The BEaC model is a helpful tool to show that biomass can be sustainable. But, as its author admits, it contains several totally unrealistic scenarios that don’t reflect real-world practice because they leave economics and regulation out. So we welcome it, but urge the Government to think about how the whole supply chain works in reality.”

Prof. Stephen Kelley, Head of the Department of Forest Biomaterials at North Carolina State University, said:

"Models such as BEaC can provide important information regarding the emissions associated with using forest biomass to produce energy. However, it also needs to take account of economics and regulatory policies in place so that it reflects the real-world pressures acting on the supply chain. BEaC does not do this, so analyses based on it do not have predictive ability and should not be used to determine biomass energy policies.

"The vast majority of the forests in the US, for example, are privately-owned and research clearly shows that landowners, especially those in the Southeast US, respond to markets when making decisions on managing and replanting their forests. Income from biomass energy enables them to practice sustainable forestry and keep forests as forests.

"While BEaC is one way to understand how the impact of using forests to produce energy, it needs to incorporate economic and policy data to model how things really work."


Scott Jones, CEO of the Forest Landowners Association, said:

“Healthy markets lead to healthy forests. A biomass market for wood residues, wastes and less marketable wood, enables our family-owned forests to be preserved for future generations.

“Without these markets and opportunities, forest land would be increasingly sold off for building development or agriculture. That would mean a return to deforestation in parts of the world (like the USA) where forest cover is actually increasing. US forests increased their absorption of carbon from the atmosphere by 221 million tonnes per year between 1990 and 2010. That success story isn’t an accident – it’s the result of careful forestry and economic investment.

“Local, sustainable and well-regulated sourcing from forest owners sits at the heart of the US pellet industry and the establishment of the UK-US biomass supply chain is essential to providing a market that allows our forests to thrive.”



More information:

Benedict McAleenan, Back Biomass Campaign
(+44) (0)20 3047 2159

James Court, Head of Public Affairs, Renewable Energy Association
(+44) (0)20 7981 0863


Editors’ Notes:

  • The BEaC Model has been in development by DECC for over two years, during which industry has invited the author to view forestry practices and pellet mills in the USA and to visit power plants in the UK.
  • Further information about the biomass sector can be found at, including information about claims around ‘clearcutting’, ‘carbon debt’ and ‘whole trees. Alternatively, please contact the spokespeople listed above.




[1] US Forest Service (RPA Assessment) Smith et al. 2009

[2] Environmental Protection Agency, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2010, 2012; Table 7-1