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New study suggests biomass would not be a good alternative for replacing coal power in the UK

Wind and solar power are likely to be less expensive than burning trees in order to replace coal in the United Kingdom, according to a new study released by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Conducted by London-based Vivid Economics, the report examines the full system costs of renewables like wind and solar relative to biomass for replacing coal and meeting the UK’s clean and reliable electricity objectives in the period 2020-2025. The results point to the need for policymakers to reform the UK’s bioenergy policies so as not to encourage more expensive and dirtier solutions to the country’s energy needs.

“The science already shows that burning biomass on a mass scale for electricity increases carbon pollution and is extremely harmful to the environment. The emissions risks associated with biomass are simply too big to be ignored, and now we see that the economics of biomass don’t make sense as the UK strives to replace coal and decarbonise its power sector,” said Sasha Stashwick, a senior advocate with NRDC, a US-based environmental organisation. “This report clearly indicates that when you account for total economic costs, cleaner alternatives like wind and solar are the lower-cost solution for a coal-free UK. It’s just good economic sense.”

The study compares the economics of biomass and other renewables – onshore wind, offshore wind and large-scale solar photovoltaic – under varying assumptions about the total economic costs of each, including the latest technology costs, the cost of ensuring reliability of supply, and carbon costs. In 2020, when fully accounting for the total economic cost of different energy technologies, biomass is more costly than wind and solar alternatives. Even for scenarios that do not include a full accounting of biomass carbon emissions, the total economic cost of biomass is comparable to or higher than that of onshore wind and solar. In 2025, as their costs continue to fall, wind and solar are likely to be the least-cost way to ensure reliability of supply in the UK power system, not biomass. 

The UK’s electricity system, like many across the globe, is undergoing major transformation. Under the Climate Change Act of 2008, the UK committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. The UK also has an aging power sector and plans to retire all coal plants by 2025, creating an ideal opportunity for investments in clean, low-cost wind and solar energy, not biomass.

The UK has relied heavily on biomass to build new electricity capacity and meet climate targets. However, research shows that many forms of biomass, especially biomass from forests, produce higher carbon emissions than coal and natural gas for up to 100 years. 

At the same time, the costs of building low-carbon alternatives to biomass like wind and solar have fallen rapidly and are expected to continue declining as the sector grows. By contrast, biomass conversion is a mature technology and comparatively little cost reduction is expected. Feedstock costs, which are two-thirds of technology costs, are also increasingly uncertain, the report says.

“Phasing out coal is absolutely necessary as the UK aims to curb climate change, but we can’t afford to backtrack by focusing on unsustainable forms of biomass that are neither clean nor cheap,” said Matt Williams, Policy Officer with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). “It is critical that we focus on renewable forms of energy that deliver emissions reductions and protect wildlife and the natural environment while providing value for money, so as to ensure that the UK hits its legally binding climate change targets."

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