Wood from the trees

1st September 2011

Related Topics

Related tags

  • Energy ,
  • Waste ,
  • Renewable ,
  • Generation



Paul Suff takes a look a the realities of biomass after the Renewable Energy Association joins industry in calling for greater subsidies for the fuel

Drax reported its annual financial figures a few weeks ago and again made a plea to the government to change the rules governing biomass.

The company operates Western Europe’s largest coal-fired power station, providing around 7% of the UK’s electricity, and has aspirations to become a major source of renewable power.

The Yorkshire power station is the largest single emitter of CO2 in the UK, but if government subsidies for biomass increased, Drax, and other coal-fired power plants, could have a lower carbon footprint than gas-fired power stations, says the company.

Drax has been using biomass to co-fire the 3,870MW plant since 2003, gradually increasing it to supply 8% of fuel in the 12 months to the end of June.

The environmental benefit of increasing biomass at the expense of coal is considerable, as, according to the European Biomass Industry Association, the substitution of one tonne of coal with refined biomass reduces net CO2 emissions by three tonnes.

CEO Dororthy Thompson says the proportion of biomass at Drax could rise to 50% or more if the level of financial support was higher. Currently, biomass generation is awarded only half a ROC – renewable obligation certificate – per unit of electricity, whereas two ROCs are awarded for each unit produced by offshore wind.

The government is due to make a decision on subsidy levels for biomass by the end of the year, but any rise, and subsequent upsurge in biomass use by coal-fired plants, raises questions about the source of the feedstock.

Biomass is any biological material, derived from plant or animal matter, which can be used to produce heat and/or power, so wood, straw, energy crops, sewage sludge, waste organic materials and animal litter are all classified as biomass. It is a low-carbon resource if the feedstock is from sustainable sources.

Using biomass to generate electricity and heat is a renewable source of fuel because the CO2 released through combustion is largely offset by the CO2 absorbed during growth or which is captured by new biomass to replace that used for energy purposes.

Around one million tonnes of biomass is currently burnt or co-fired in UK power stations each year, but expansion plans could see demand for biomass soar to 60 million tonnes a year.

The UK has its own, largely undeveloped, stocks of biomass, but supplies will need to increase significantly, and a supply chain established, if it is to become a relatively common feature of the energy mix.

Imported biomass already makes up more than half of the feedstock used for co-firing in power stations, and the government has acknowledged that the UK will continue to rely on imports. Drax says it will aim source as much as possible from the UK, but admits that imported biomass will also be required.

Although the energy company has a strict sourcing policy, there is a fear that growing demand for biomass will lead to vast tree plantations solely for energy, increasing pressures on land access and food security in some of the world’s poorest countries and communities. And, even if it is from sustainable sources and does not displace food crops, the carbon emitted by transporting the biomass from other parts of the world will substantially reduce the benefit of burning it.

Do you agree? Why not start a discussion in the IEMA LinkedIn Group and have your say?


Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.

Transform articles

Swing voters show strong support for renewables

There is strong support for renewable energy as a source of economic growth among UK voters, particularly among those intending to switch their support for a political party.

16th May 2024

Read more

A project promoter’s perspective on the environmental challenges facing new subsea power cables

3rd April 2024

Read more

The UK’s major cities lag well behind their European counterparts in terms of public transport use. Linking development to transport routes might be the answer, argues Huw Morris

3rd April 2024

Read more

Tom Harris examines the supply chain constraints facing the growing number of interconnector projects

2nd April 2024

Read more

The UK government’s carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) strategy is based on optimistic techno-economic assumptions that are now outdated, Carbon Tracker has warned.

13th March 2024

Read more

The UK government’s latest Public Attitudes Tracker has found broad support for efforts to tackle climate change, although there are significant concerns that bills will rise.

13th March 2024

Read more

A consortium including IEMA and the Good Homes Alliance have drafted a letter to UK government ministers expressing disappointment with the proposed Future Homes Standard.

26th February 2024

Read more

Global corporations such as Amazon and Google purchased a record 46 gigawatts (GW) of solar and wind energy last year, according to BloombergNEF (BNEF).

13th February 2024

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close