A report commissioned by the UK Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, has found that using biomass instead of coal is playing a positive part in decarbonizing the power sector.
The findings, by Ricardo Energy & Environment, come in a week where the biomass power sector has had to defend the technology’s reputation as a positive replacement for coal-fired power.
The study titled “Use of North American woody biomass in UK electricity generation”, reaffirms the positive impact of US biomass industry on US forests and carbon emissions.
Reacting to the news, US Industrial Pellet Association (IPA) Executive Director Seth Ginther said, “This study confirms that biomass sourced from US forests is sustainable and carbon beneficial and that bioenergy plays a key role in reducing emissions and mitigating climate change as a low-cost replacement for fossil fuels.”
“The report reaffirms the findings of countless academics and scientists – that when sourced sustainably, biomass can play an important role as a baseload renewable energy source. This report can be added to a growing body of academic and scientific research which shows that using biomass in place of coal can reduce carbon emissions by 74 per cent or more.”
This report and the accompanying Bioenergy Emissions and Counterfactuals (BEaC) Model was commissioned by the UK government to look at the carbon intensity of different supply chain models for the bioenergy industry and found that normal, widespread industry practices deliver major cuts in carbon emissions when compared to using coal for energy production.
According to the report’s authors, assertions from the environmental NGO community that wood pellet production and use leads to reduction in forest cover, increased carbon emissions, or changes forest management and harvest decisions are shown in this study to be unfounded.
“The report shows that using wood pellets for energy generation supports healthy forests and generates significant carbon savings at a lower cost. Thanks to a strong forest market, to which woody biomass contributes, forest inventory in southern US forests has continued to increase year over year for the last several decades.”
The research identified economic decision-making as the driver for forestry practices, showing that the main value of a tree is in sawtimber, not biomass for wood pellet production. It is therefore unlikely that demand for biomass would cause foresters to change behaviour and harvest sooner than they intended or to switch to supplying wood for bioenergy.
Earlier this week environmental law specialists ClientEarth had expressed their skepticism about the claims the biomass sector was making about its potential as an alternative to coal-fired power.
A Drax spokesperson told Power Engineering International: “This report backs up what we have said for a number of years about biomass – sustainably sourced wood used for bioenergy is having a big impact on cutting carbon emissions. Sustainable biomass is a cost effective, flexible renewable energy source which is helping to get coal off the system in the UK.”
“The biomass Drax uses to generate electricity is comprised of low-grade wood which is sourced sustainably and meets the robust requirements set out in the UK Government’s regulations. Last year we generated 16% of the UK’s renewable electricity using this sustainable biomass – enough to power four million households. We have already upgraded half the power station to run on sustainable biomass resulting in carbon savings of 80% compared to coal.”
“Independent research has shown biomass is also a very cost effective source of renewable energy.”
However biomass’s doubters remain undeterred. RSPB website pointed out the introduction to the report, stating it “openly admits that ‘bioenergy is not carbon neutral’ because of direct and indirect land use changes. And it goes on to admit that its own emissions calculation methodology is the reason that high-carbon bioenergy is being classified as low carbon and as eligible for subsidy. This is an astonishing admission in a Government-produced report, and suggests the need for urgent action to fix a broken bioenergy policy that could be failing to deliver emissions savings.”