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Development Services & Sustainability: Challenging Polices and Perception


Gaynor Hartley, Chief Executive of the Renewable Energy Association (REA), looks back at 2011 and predicts another busy year ahead for the renewables sector – and the REA. One of the key drivers for the organisation will be its Back Biomass campaign, an industry-led initiative to urge the Government to back biomass power and CHP as a unique and crucial part of the UK’s low carbon future.

This year has seen a disturbing upsurge in ill-founded and nonsensical criticism of the renewables industry, both in its ability to contribute to Britain’s energy security, and also to help generate economic growth and jobs.

In fact, the renewables sector has been one of the few areas of the economy to buck the trend and continue growing during the downturn. In the last financial year alone the sector grew 4.3%. Hundreds of billions are being invested globally every year in renewables and associated supply chains, and the figure is rising. Here in the UK, 51,600 companies now provide low carbon and environmental goods and services.

Whilst the Government seeks to balance key priorities like decarbonisation, energy security and best  value for consumers, industry must be also play its part in promoting awareness and understanding of the huge potential benefits of renewables to the UK. Above all we must have certainty in the direction of travel, because it is certainty which drives investment, jobs and real change.

It was extremely encouraging, therefore, to hear Energy Minister, Charles Hendry MP, describe biomass as ‘one of the major new growth opportunities that can help the UK economy out of recession’. We agree, which is one of the reasons we started the ‘Back Biomass’ campaign in nearly summer. The campaign is an industry-led initiative to inform the debate around the merits of biomass power and CHP as proven, practical, secure source of low-carbon energy.

We wanted to deliver a clear message to Government that if it puts the right policy framework in place, the biomass industry is ready and willing to assist in meeting the UK’s renewables target. With the proposed incentives framework (the Renewables Obligation) now being consulted upon, and the Government’s Bioenergy Strategy expected in the New Year, the pieces are starting to come together.

We already know this report will confirm that without the contribution of sustainably sourced bio-energy, we cannot meet our 2050 emissions reductions commitments. As a result of this progress, much anticipated projects have the go-ahead, like the 40MW dedicated biomass power plant at Sleaford, with Government analysis showing the potential for 32-50TWh per year of biomass electricity by 2020.

This is a technology which can boost energy security, produce clean electricity and heat, and create new markets and jobs driving economic development in rural and urban areas. It is also uniquely able to provide dispatchable, baseload power to balance grid peaks created by intermittent renewables and other capacity constraints.

Together with carbon capture and storage, it could even (in the words of the Minister) provide ‘the holy grail’ of negative emissions. Crucially though, the industry recognizes that the long-term future of biomass power depends on the availability of a sustainable source of biomass feedstock for fuel.

Unlike fossil fuels, biomass fuel can be drawn from renewable, sustainable sources. But concerns exist that ramping up the sector could have negative impact on the global feedstock. The Government’s response has been to introduce rigorous new sustainability criteria from 2013 as part of the Renewables Obligation. The result is that only sustainably-sourced biomass which complies with strict environmental regulations will be eligible for UK subsidy. This means biomass feedstock cannot be taken from protected areas, and must have a 60% overall lower lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil generation.

The Government is looking to ensure we maximise the sustainable use of UK resources. This involves bringing more woodland into management – which can also help improve their biodiversity and bringing in other sources such as waste materials and ‘energy crops’ – which include grasses like miscanthus and short rotation forestry. The industry welcomes these measures, which will safeguard the long term expansion of the sector and stimulate the development of the supply chain which underpins it.

Supporting the biomass industry will help to enhance the value of biomass sources, and increase production of more biomass supplies. This in turn will help to incentivize the development of the global and UK supply chain and manage the potential impacts on other biomass users. Industry welcomes these measures, which will drive up standards in the sustainability and conservation of forestry, helping to ensure that biomass is cleaner and more sustainable than it has ever been.