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Ecologist: Biomass 'needs to be part of our low-carbon future'


The biomass industry responds to an Ecologist article by Biofuelswatch to counter what it says are the 'myths' around biomass, arguing that it is sustainable, proven and low carbon

Recent years have witnessed significant progress in the move towards a sustainable, low carbon economy. Increasing awareness of the environmental and economic costs of staying on the fossil fuel hook is driving the growth of renewables. While Europe leads the way, the UK in particular has its work cut out to meet ambitious 2020 emissions reductions and renewables targets.

Protecting people and the environment must be at the forefront of all energy policy decisions; but unfortunately there's no single ‘silver bullet' technology to the key challenges of cost-effectiveness, emissions reductions, energy security and economic growth. However,while the world is still dependent on fossil fuels, we have a responsibility to seriously consider affordable low carbon options that are deliverable today to lower emissions.

Biomass power and CHP offers unique benefits compared to available alternatives. Unlike fossil fuels it's a renewable resource; and unlike many other renewables, it's able to generate continuously, or switch on and off to balance other inflexible or intermittent technologies on the grid. There's also huge potential for green jobs and skills directly and through supply chains.

A recent EU study found biomass provides more jobs than any other renewable industry. As a mature, proven technology, the capital and operating costs are very competitive relative to high risk ‘first of a kind' technologies. It's also capable of producing a 35-90 per cent reduction in emissions compared to fossil fuels. This has led numerous experts and analysts including AEA Technology, the International Panel on Climate Change, Imperial College's UK Energy Research Council and the Forestry Commission's Biomass Energy Centre, to rank biomass as among the most cost-effective ways to deliver carbon savings, especially when heat and power are generated together.

Despite such authoritative support, biomass is victim to some common myths and misunderstandings (rarely backed up by evidence), typified by a recent article by Biofuelswatch in the Ecologist. The Back Biomass campaign is grateful for the opportunity to set the story straight.

The first myth is that biomass is not a ‘low carbon' energy source. Fossil fuels store carbon indefinitely - if it is released, it increases net carbon levels. However, carbon contained in wood is still part of the living carbon cycle. Sustainable forestry management ensures no net increase in CO2 emissions, because energy conversion is balanced in a continuous planting cycle of new growth which absorbs CO2. The process of converting wood to energy is considered low carbon by governments, independent scientists and experts globally. Of course, replanting and regrowth takes time (though energy crops or sustainably managed plantations grow extremely fast), but so long as the net stock of wood isn't depleted the carbon cycle remains intact.

Another misconception is that biomass adds more carbon to the atmosphere than fossil fuels. Fossil fuels only increase net carbon, they cannot absorb it. So, although comparing ‘stack emissions' out of coal fired power plants to those of biomass plants will produce a level higher (or broadly the same according to some scientific studies), this comparison is misleading. Biomass emissions are counted across the lifecycle - from the planting of a tree, to harvesting, transportation, conversion into energy and subsequent replacement with new growth. Variation occurs depending on efficiency of different sized plants (some larger plants produce significantly less stack emissions), feedstock types, and use of highly efficient CHP. But this carbon ‘recycling' has been widely found to result in total lifecycle emissions of 35-85 per cent less than fossil fuels.

The IPCC concluded that this process potentially secures emissions reductions of up to 90 per cent and that stabilising the rate of CO2 removal from the atmosphere by replenishing biomass feedstock means 'bioenergy has significant greenhouse gas mitigation potential'. The International Energy Agency similarly argues that biomass can 'substitute for fossil fuels', while the Environment Agency accords it ‘a key role' in reducing emissions. The strongest evidence is perhaps the definitive benchmark in the UK Government Sustainability Criteria- from 2013, if a biomass plant can't demonstrate GHG emissions savings of at least 60 per cent relative to gas, the most carbon lean fossil fuel, it won't receive subsidy.

As fossil fuels supplies dwindle, it's clear prices are only going one way. Not so with biomass, where the long term prospects of the industry depend on actively encouraging continual feedstock renewal - there is no ‘peak biomass'. It's also wrong to suggest that solid biomass is limited to wood. A diverse range of sources exist, including: recovered waste wood, energy crops grown on marginal land or alongside food crops; and agricultural by-products from food production. This variety, and the fact that (unlike fossil fuels) biomass is typically sourced from geopolitically stable regions, means lower risk of price and supply volatility. Consequently this safe, mature technology offers a boost to energy security at a time where price shocks in other fuels place huge economic pressure on energy users. The solid feedstock used in these plants is also often confused with bioliquids, but associated concerns on land use change, food security and palm oil for example, are simply not applicable in the same way to biomass.

Despite evidence like this IEA report showing that biomass could meet 10-20 per cent of primary energy demand, a lack of understanding about biomass sources and modern approaches to sustainable harvesting and farming leads to concerns that there won't be ‘enough to go around'. A number of robust, independent peer reviewed studies have addressed this issue in-depth concluding that biomass could supply a significant proportion of the world's primary energy requirements without damaging food production or adversely affecting the environment. Most recently, a report by UKERC scientists rigorously reviewed 90 global studies, concluding that one fifth of current global energy supply from biomass is a 'reasonable ambition' if best use is made of resources.

There is a significant amount of land suitable for biomass globally which is going to waste and at risk of development. A market for sustainable feedstock encourages active management which can result in enhanced biodiversity and where adverse impact on the environment is minimal. Research by Rabobank has highlighted the capacity for biomass to generate income for developing nations through biomass exports. With subsidy in the UK and Europe becoming contingent on low life cycle emissions, industry has more reason than ever to drive up standards in supply chains, forestry management and conservation. Even if subsidy were not contingent on demonstrating sustainability, the biomass industry logically has no long term interest in permanently destroying its own fuel sources. Commitments of compliance with internationally recognised certification schemes like the Forest Stewardship Council are experiencing unprecedented growth as a response to market demand for certified products.Global schemes like this have been endorsed by leading NGOs Greenpeace and WWF, as well as a host of independent experts. Certification is dependent on demonstrating long-term land tenure and use rights, compliance with applicable laws and treaties, respect for indigenous peoples' and appropriate management of areas requiring special protection and reduction of environmental impact. Many companies also now implement and report publicly on their own rigorous, independently audited sustainability and supply practices.

The industry's commitment to demonstrating sustainability has led to extensive work with governments and bodies like the FSC to improve standards and regulations. The EU Renewable Energy Directive already has direct effect on enforcing sustainability accreditation in UK biomass supply chains, and the new Sustainability Criteria mean that UK biomass installations above 1 megawatt won't receive subsidy unless their feedstock comes from independently verified sustainable, low carbon sources and meets restrictions on using highly biodiverse or high carbon stock land - including primary forest, peatland, and wetlands. These regulatory and policy frameworks clearly demonstrate the direction of travel, and are welcomed by industry. Of course there's still work to be done to ensure that they are effectively enforced. Industry and regulators must continue to root out and punish illegal and bad practice. However, although it is the responsibility of individual countries to develop and enforce standards, the knock-on effect of UK and EU sustainability regulations around the world is to provide a clear signal to suppliers abroad that there is no market for feedstock that is not demonstrably sustainable.

In conclusion, biomass is a sustainable, proven, low carbon energy source that can help deliver cost effective carbon savings and help meet renewable energy targets. The global biomass industry, governments and campaigning NGOs all have a part to play in driving best practices that encourage biomass rich countries to manage feedstock sustainably. The long term prospects for the industry depend on this direction of travel, and it is ready and willing to play its part.