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Biomass: the trojan horse of renewables?

The government plans to make up to three quarters of the UK's renewable energy target with biomass – but it falls short of the mark, says Almuth Ernsting of Biofuelwatch

June 7, 2013
4 min read

Most people’s image of renewable energy is a wind turbine or solar panel. Few are aware that the government’s ‘renewable energy’ vision consists in large part of burning carbon-based fuel in power stations. In 2011, 77 per cent of all renewable energy ‘inputs’ came from burning biomass and according to the government’s 2012 Bioenergy Strategy, up to 11 per cent of all the UK’s energy could come from burning biomass by 2020.

This would be almost three-quarters of the UK’s entire renewable energy target. The figure includes biofuels such as soya and palm oil that are linked to large-scale deforestation and land grabbing. However, the largest share is to come from burning wood, both in purpose-built new power stations and in coal power stations that are being fully or partly converted to wood pellets.

Can’t see the wood

If the true purpose of the government’s renewable energy strategy was to reduce carbon emissions and promote more sustainable types of energy then their priorities would seem senseless. Energy companies have announced plans to build or convert power stations which altogether would burn 81 million tonnes of wood every year. The UK’s total wood production (for all purposes) is only 10 million tonnes annually. Planning consent has been granted for five coal power stations to partly or fully convert to wood. Those power stations alone will burn almost five times the UK’s annual wood production every year.

Not surprisingly then, the UK Bioenergy Strategy confirms that 80 per cent of biomass is expected to be imported. Most imports so far are from British Columbia and the southern US, two regions where highly biodiverse and carbon-rich forests are being clearcut at an ever faster rate. US campaigners have proven that the pellets come from whole trees, not just residues as companies like to claim. And one scientific study after another confirms that burning trees for electricity results in vast carbon emissions which cannot possibly be absorbed by new trees for decades or centuries, if ever. Meanwhile in the UK, figures commissioned by the last government showed that 1.75 million life years could be lost in 2020 as a result of bioenergy expansion – or rather due to just one of the dozens of different pollutants released from burning biomass.

Lobbying

So how did electricity from biomass come to take centre stage in the government’s renewables policy when it is clearly disastrous for the climate, for forests and for people’s health? The answer is lobbying – primarily by the Big Six energy companies and Drax. All of the coal-to-biomass conversions are for power stations which would otherwise have to close under EU legislation because they breach sulphur dioxide rules (and biomass, though overall much as polluting as coal, releases less sulphur dioxide).

To keep those power stations open, energy companies have demanded – and received – guarantees of long-term subsidies for burning biomass paid under the Renewables Obligation – as well as other investment support. This includes loans by the Green Investment Bank, which are informed by government priorities. Their first big loan went to Drax, and secretary of state Vince Cable has praised their vital role in stopping Drax from shutting down. Thanks to the Green Bank, Drax can keep burning vast amounts of coal as well as imported wood for years or decades to come.

Documents received by Biofuelwatch through a Freedom of Information request illustrate the degree of collusion between Drax and the government. Drax were satisfied with government guarantees of long-term support for biomass conversion well before the crucial subsidy rules were proposed to parliament.

Without breaking big energy companies’ hold over government policy, even its renewable energy strategy will continue to make climate change, deforestation and air pollution ever worse.

www.biofuelwatch.org.uk

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