U.K. claim that burning biomass is clean seen as `flawed’

The U.K. government’s view of biomass as a carbon-neutral energy source is a “flawed assumption,” according to report from Chatham House.

The U.K. counts emissions from the supply chain that produces and delivers wood pellets or chips used in biomass power plants, but not when they’re burned to make electricity, the London-based research group said Thursday.

The report rebuts government policy, and comes as power producers including Drax Group Plc are using more of the fuel in an effort to reduce emissions produced from coal.

“Current policies that treat biomass as carbon-neutral do not reflect their real impacts on the climate,” said Duncan Brack, associate fellow of the energy, environment and resources Department at Chatham House. “Public money should only be used to subsidize technologies that genuinely reduce carbon emissions.”

The U.K. Renewable Energy Association released a statement rejecting the paper’s claims, saying the authors misunderstood to role of biomass in supporting forests that absorb carbon.

“The system as a whole has led to a doubling of forest cover in the USA over 50 years,” the REA said in the statement. “The fact is that biomass cuts carbon, supports forests, and delivers reliable energy at a lower cost.”
The U.K. generated 9 percent of its electricity from biomass in 2015, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy reiterated its stance on the fuel in response to the report. Coal is the dirtiest way to generate electricity, and converting coal plants to biomass will facilitate a faster transition away from coal.

Biomass, “when correctly managed, as it is in this country, yes it is carbon neutral,” Alec James, a spokesman for the agency, said by phone. “We take very careful precautions to make sure it is, in regards to the sourcing of material.”

The U.K. doesn’t consider the emissions from wood-burning power plants because it counts biomass pollution under land-use rather than energy, under carbon-accounting rules set by the Kyoto Protocol. This doesn’t account for importing wood from other countries to burn, leading to gaps in the emissions counts, the report said.

Converting Plants

Drax, one of the U.K.’s largest energy providers, has converted nearly half of its six coal-fired power stations to burn biomass. It imports 5.5 million tons of wood pellets from the U.S. and Canada annually. The European Union approved a government subsidy to support the conversion of another one of its units to biomass in December.

Burning woody biomass such as pellets and chips can result in higher emissions than coal when comparing technologies of similar ages, according to the report. While trees are a renewable resource, it takes decades for them to grow back after they harvested. Wood waste products such as sawdust are more sustainable for use in electricity production, but tend to be less energy-dense and more complicated to source.
“This report clearly shows that burning wood is not a climate change solution,” said Gareth Redmond-King, head of climate and energy at the WWF-UK environmental group. “Bioenergy only makes sense when using wastes and residues, not wood or crops.”

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