U.K. Sets New Emissions Targets for Biomass Generators

The U.K. set curbs on greenhouse gas emissions by biomass-fired generators like Drax Group Plc after campaigners said the fuel may cause more harm than burning coal.

Power stations that burn wood must cut greenhouse gases to 72 percent below the average output of fossil fuel-fired plants by 2020 and 75 percent by 2025, the Department of Energy and Climate Change said today in an e-mailed statement. The targets apply to generators with a capacity of 1 megawatt or higher, who will lose government support should they breach the regulations.

“The new criteria will provide the necessary investor certainty and, crucially, ensure that the biomass is delivered in a transparent and sustainable way,” Energy and Climate Change Minister Greg Barker said. Biomass generation is expected to be an “important” part of the U.K.’s energy mix, he said.

The rules seek to ensure that rising use of wood for power doesn’t add to environmental damage or increase emissions from shipping and deforestation. Groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have said biomass use may raise greenhouse gases.

A spokesman for Barker’s department said the regulations will apply to generators supported with the U.K.’s Renewables Obligation and Contracts for Difference programs.

While burning wood emits carbon dioxide, it’s considered to have lower emissions than fossil fuel as new trees are planted to replace those that are felled. The European Environment Agency, an adviser to governments, in July said the land needed to grow the fuel may still displace crops into previously uncultivated areas, increasing greenhouse emissions.

Dirtier Fuel

Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds last year published a report saying that biomass may be dirtier than coal because of transportation, the need to replace wood diverted for burning with materials such as plastic and concrete, and the decades required to regrow trees.

While the new regulations improve on previous proposals, they fail to account for such effects, Greenpeace said today.

“The loopholes in these sustainability standards are big enough to drive a logging truck through,” Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace U.K., said in an e-mail.

Under the rules, generators will need to show sustainable harvesting of trees, protection of wildlife and plants, and respect for the land rights of indigenous people from 2015.

‘Reliable, Flexible’

“These sustainability criteria ensure that the U.K. can reap the benefits of biomass, safe in the knowledge that it is making a real dent in our carbon emissions,” industry group Renewable Energy Association Chief Executive Officer Nina Skorupska said. Biomass “has all the same benefits as fossil fuels, such as reliability and flexibility of supply, but without the carbon impacts.”

More than a third of the U.K.’s renewable power comes from biomass. Drax, the country’s biggest single source of carbon dioxide, has converted one of its six coal-fired units to burn mostly biomass, generating as much as 585 megawatts. The company plans to convert another unit next year and a third in 2016.

“Mandatory criteria are the best way to ensure that all the biomass used in electricity generation is demonstrably sustainable and delivers major carbon savings relative to fossil fuels,” Chief Executive Officer Dorothy Thompson said in an e-mailed statement. Drax has had its own rules in place since 2008 and calculates that its converted unit has cut emissions by 80 percent relative to coal, the company said in the statement.

The government has capped the amount of new, dedicated biomass plants that are able to receive assistance at 400 megawatts. That doesn’t include plants that generate heat as well as power, or conversions from coal, such as those by Drax.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.