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UK should approach bioenergy with caution

The UK could meet 10% of its energy demand using sustainable bionergy, but the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) warns that the use of bioenergy is still controversial.

By Kari Williamson

The CCC believes bioenergy could supply 10% of total energy in the UK by 2050, but that a higher share is unlikely without compromising sustainability.

“The extent to which bioenergy should contribute to economy decarbonisation is highly controversial,” says CCC Chief Executive David Kennedy.

“Our analysis shows that there is a crucial role for bioenergy in meeting carbon budgets, but within strict sustainability limits – and trade-offs with wider environmental and social objectives may be needed.”

He continues: “Strengthening of regulatory arrangements is required both here and in Europe to provide confidence that bioenergy use over the next decade is sustainable.”

He goes on to say that carbon capture and storage (CCS) “should be demonstrated and demonstration projects commenced given the crucial role of this technology when used with bioenergy to meet carbon budgets.

“The Government should change its approach to supporting new biomass power generation, which as proposed could raise costs with limited carbon benefits.”

Five recommendations

The CCC has come up with five key recommendations for the UK Government on the use of bioenergy and biomass:

  1. Regulatory frameworks should be strengthened to ensure sustainability of bioenergy: The UK should reduce its bioenergy benchmark from 250 g CO2/kWh to 200 g CO2/kWh;
  2. CCS should be demonstrated as a matter of urgency: The Government should move forward with its four proposed demonstration CCS projects;
  3. Government should regard targets on biofuels and biomass as flexible and should delay setting any new targets until new regulatory arrangements have been put in place to ensure the sustainable supply of bioenergy: It is better to lower the targets than meet them in an unsustainable way;
  4. Subsidies need not be provided to new large-scale biomass power generation under the Renewables Obligation: They would be costly and unsustainable. The Government should instead focus on co-firing and the conversion of existing coal plants; and
  5. Other low-carbon options should be developed: These include energy efficiency, nuclear, wind power, electric vehicles and electric heating.

Areas of use for bioenergy

  • Power generation: With or instead of coal in existing plants. New dedicated biomass should be limited unless it is combined with CCS;
  • Industry: Reduce building emissions using wood in construction. Can also use biomass alongside CCS in energy-intensive industry;
  • Aviation: Could be used through 2020s and beyond, but should not be seen as a 'silver bullet' to reduce aviation emissions. The industry will need efficiency improvements and constrained demand growth;
  • Surface transport: Only niche use of biofuels in surface transport. The sector should focus on electric technologies to decarbonise; and
  • Waste-to-bioenergy: Bioenergy could be used in a range of smaller scale applications at local levels, such as using used cooking oil to run buses, use food or farm waste in anaerobic digestion, or use woodchip from tree surgery in biomass boilers.

CCC takes a pessimistic view on bioenergy

The Renewable Energy Association’s (REA) Chief Executive, Gaynor Hartnell, comments: “We welcome the Committee’s acknowledgement that bioenergy has a key role to play – and that it will be difficult to meet climate change targets unless it provides at least 10% of all energy in 2050. It also has unique potential if carbon capture and storage (CCS) becomes economically viable as the only technology which can become carbon negative.

“The report’s recommendations are based on a view of bioenergy as ‘scarce,’ and recognises that this depends on yields per hectare, yet neglects the question of how to maximise productivity. The review takes a pessimistic view – which sits oddly with very positive assumptions on the deliverability and costs of CCS, electrification of heat and transport, energy efficiency and grid decarbonisation.”

Hartnell continues: “We support the Government’s view that there is an important role for power stations using biomass from sustainably produced feedstocks. We expect to see projects coming forward under the Renewables Obligation. Biomass performs extremely well against the Government’s ‘marginal technology,’ offshore wind, providing increased cost competitiveness and jobs, at the same time as being able to deliver predictable, controllable baseload power.”

Government should encourage investment

“Despite much of the language being gloomy, the review shows that biofuels will be needed in road transport – indeed, they need to peak in 2030 and remain a significant element until 2045. If that is to happen, there need to be strong signals from Government now to encourage the necessary investment,” Hartnell says.

“We welcome the support for heat in industrial uses and the call for the Government to confirm long-term funding for the Renewable Heat Incentive. Biomass heat has a great deal to contribute in delivering cost effective renewables and carbon savings, but the review underplays this. It also seems uninterested in district heating or combined heat and power, which is a significant omission.”

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