Measures to restrict biomass' role in upcoming Contracts for Difference auction cheered by environmental campaigners but slammed by industry
New rules to limit the cash available for biomass projects in upcoming government clean energy auctions have been slammed by the industry, which warns curbing biomass growth will "make it harder and more expensive" to ease coal power off the UK grid.
But environmental campaigners who have long opposed biomass over fears it can inadvertently drive deforestation have cheered the moves, expressing "relief" that subsidies for the technology are being revised.
The controversy was sparked late last week after the government published plans to adopt a new greenhouse gas threshold of 29kg of CO2 per MWh for new biomass projects seeking subsidy under its Contracts for Difference support scheme.
The new threshold represents a shap reduction on the previous standard projects had to meet to qualify for the Renewables Obligation scheme, which stood at 180 CO2e/MWh and applies from 2025-2030 for existing biomass generators.
The tightening of the standards means biomass plants would have to operate with almost 95 per cent lower carbon emissions than the average EU fossil power plant. The government claims the rules will help the UK ensure only the greenest renewables projects receive state support.
But Benedict McAleenan, head of trade body Biomass UK, said now is the wrong time to "attack" the sector, warning developing new biomass plants will be "much more difficult" under the new rules.
"Just when we need low-cost, flexible power to back up technologies like wind and solar, this decision risks it all," he said in a statement. "It will make it harder and more expensive to remove coal from the UK power grid."
But green campaigners in the UK and the US - where biomass operators source much of their feedstock - cheered the news. They contend that wood used to produce biomass pellets is being gathered by clear cutting forests in the US, destroying biodiversity hotspots - a charge the biomass industry fiercely contests.
"We are relieved that the government has at last closed the door on new subsidies for burning imported wood for electricity because of the climate impacts," Almuth Ernsting from the NGO Biofuelwatch said. "This comes after years of warnings by scientists and environmental organisations alike that burning pellets sourced from logging forests in North America and elsewhere is no better for the climate than burning coal."
Ernsting also called on the UK government to now go further in withdrawing all funding for the technology, arguing subsidies for biomass should be redirected into other renewables, such as wind and solar.
But the biomass industry maintains that it has a crucial role to play in supporting the UK's decarbonisation strategy. The sector insists that to qualify for any subsidies it has to source sustainable certified feedstocks that guard against the risk of deforestation or other land use impacts.
Moreover, developers insist improving technologies mean it can offer highly efficient combined heat and power (CHP) plants that generate significant carbon savings compared to fossil fuels, deliver heat to industrial plants, and provide reliable power to support the roll out of variable renewables such as wind and solar power.
The industry also argues that the integration of biomass and carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS) technologies - something being explored by leading energy supplier Drax and others - could play a critical role in one day delivering negative emissions.
McAleenan urged the government to reconsider the latest reforms. "Developing sustainable, efficient renewable CHP plants will be much more difficult, despite the joined-up value they provide across heat and power sectors," he said. "With no coherent strategy on decarbonising heat, the government is undermining a key option. At the same time, just when BEIS and others seem to be waking up to the possibility of negative carbon emissions from Bioenergy with CCUS, they are simultaneously shutting off this market.
"In summary, the government is shooting itself in the foot on three key policies: energy bills, heat decarbonisation and carbon capture. A triple whammy."
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