Biomass UK defends green credentials as scepticism persists

Biomass UK has launched a renewed defence of the technology as environmental agencies continue to question its credentials in the clean energy space.

In recent weeks biomass has come under some scrutiny. A Chatham House report found that biomass pellets were more polluting than coal.
Sam Bright of Client EarthBenedict McAleenan of Biomass UK
In a statement to Power Engineering International, ClientEarth took proponents of biomass to task for what they maintain is a failure in carbon accounting.

ClientEarth energy lawyer Sam Bright said, “Biomass energy is classified as carbon-neutral in the UK and Europe, but this is based on a carbon accounting error – emissions from biomass are ignored when determining the carbon impact of the energy sector. But energy produced from the large-scale burning of biomass, for example vast quantities of wood pellets, may emit as much or more carbon than coal.”

However Benedict McAleenan of Biomass UK, part of the UK Renewable Energy Association, hit back, dismissing ClientEarth’s statement asclaims that have been heard before and found to be wrong by academics, government regulators and experts in the field.’

McAleenan said biomass is ‘a brilliant way to replace coal with a low-carbon alternative.’

“Compared to coal, it can show a 90 per cent cut in emissions, including the whole supply chain. So there’s no accounting error. Some people just don’t understand how biomass works.”

“Carbon isn’t reabsorbed by simply replacing each tree with a new one and waiting. Instead, foresters actively manage the growth rate of the whole forest so that growth outpaces removals. That way, the forest is a continual carbon sink, sucking in carbon and locking it away.”

“This isn’t just theory. Growth is outpacing removals in supplier forests year on year. Privately owned forests in the USA have nearly doubled their wood stocks in 60 years. In the Southern USA, where the UK sources most of its pellets, net growth of forest inventories was +0.7 per cent each year between 2008 and 2014. That’s after removals for all the wood product industries. And wood pellet exports were just 0.09 per cent of total forest stocks ” far less than overall growth.”

“Our supplier forests are growing, not shrinking, as a result of good management, good regulation and active industry demand.”

Earlier ClientEarth had taken aim at power generators such as Britain’s largest coal power operator, Drax, for the claims they are making about biomass. The environmental law agency believes biomass should only be used on a small scale.
Biomass pellets
Bright said, “The wood pellets burned by huge plants such as Drax are largely sourced from forests in the USA and Canada. Even if the trees are regrown (which is not always the case), it takes decades for a sapling to become a mature tree, and reabsorb the carbon emitted by its predecessor. This time lag is not reflected in carbon calculations either.”

“Small-scale biomass operations, such as burning waste for energy, or using coppiced wood for local heating schemes, bear no resemblance to what the biomass industry is proposing, which is to generate a substantial proportion of our energy needs from burning biomass. This is absolutely not acceptable, given its serious climate change and other environmental impacts.”

Bright responded later on Wednesday to McAleenan’s comments, and continued to hold a sceptical line. He said that regardless of questions around the supply chain and forest management, the legal point remains that stack emissions (what comes out of the chimney) when biomass is burnt are currently not accounted for.

à‚ “This makes it impossible to assess the true damage it can and will cause. This is something that must be explored and corrected.”

ClientEarth believes the case for biomass is not a foregone conclusion. Asked was there any scenario where biomass could be deemed an appropriate energy solution, Bright reinforced the agency’s position.

“As a sizeable part of the energy mix, biomass is certainly not a tenable solution. It can also be problematic on the smaller scale. Any assessment of biomass’s ‘appropriateness’ should be made based on correct carbon accounting ” something the UK and EU have not mastered yet.”

“It’s an approach based on some shaky environmental principles, and it doesn’t remotely resemble the sort of clean energy innovation we’ll need to meet the Paris obligations and secure a healthy planet.”

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