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Sandbag’s “playing with fire” report gets a critical scorching

A recently published report by UK-based think-tank Sandbag has assessed the possible growth in biomass demand across Europe as a result of a fleet of proposed coal-to-biomass power plant conversions. The report finds that, if allowed, this would triple current biomass demands and double global demand for wood pellets. In so doing, ‘biomass risks accelerating climate change’, a claim that the Renewable Energy Association (REA) refutes.

Woodchips in the fuel yard of a biomass-fired combined heat and power (CHP) plant.

Published by UK-headed energy and climate “thinktank” Sandbag, the report “Playing With Fire An assessment of company plans to burn biomass in EU coal power stations” says that it has mapped every planned coal-to-biomass project in Europe.

As the biomass is expected to be primarily in the form of wood pellets or woodchips, the authors have estimated the “scale of the threat to global forests” as a result of using woody biomass in the fleet of planned coal-to-biomass power plant conversions, despite “scientific consensus that burning biomass instead of coal in power stations risk accelerating climate change.”

The key findings of the report include:

  • Proposed EU coal-to-biomass projects could increase biomass consumption by 607 petajoules (PJ) p/a. This is equivalent to five new Drax power stations. As a result, biomass burnt in current and former coal power plants could triple compared to current levels.
  • If all the biomass is in the form of wood pellets then 36 million tonnes of pellets would be needed, similar to current global wood pellet production.
  • Approximately 2 700 km2 of forest would need to be cut down every year to feed this demand – equivalent to most of the forest in the Netherlands or half of the Black Forest in Germany.
  • These projects would produce just 64 TWh of electricity, less than 2 percent of the EU’s electricity production. In comparison, every year Europe adds an equivalent amount of new wind and solar capacity.

To address this, three key policy recommendations have been proposed in the report:

  1. Governments should focus policy support on renewable energy sources which deliver “near-immediate” carbon and cost savings compared to fossil fuels – such as wind and solar – rather than on biomass, which delivers “questionable carbon savings, perhaps not realised for many decades (if at all), at a cost much higher than that of fossil fuels.
  2. The true effect of biomass burning on the climate must be understood. Governments must assess the net effects of switching from coal to biomass with an integrated approach: carbon flows along the complete life cycle (including combustion emissions) in the bioenergy scenario should be compared with carbon flows in the absence of increased harvesting for bioenergy (a reference or counterfactual scenario). Such analyses should include the reduction in the carbon stock and foregone sequestration from biomass harvested.
  3. As recommended by the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC), a coal-to-biomass project should not be regarded as a renewable energy source unless the operators can demonstrate that the project will lead to a net reduction in atmospheric carbon levels within a decade. Projects that fail to meet this threshold should be subject to a carbon price and not be eligible for any subsidies.
According to Sandbag, analysis of the 67 current coal-to-biomass proposals in the Large Combustion Plant Database (LCPD), it is in the countries planning to phase-out coal where the highest potential growth in biomass use in coal plants. Projects in Finland, Germany, Ireland, Spain, and the Netherlands account for over 70 percent of the potential growth. The Netherlands alone accounts for 25 percent (graphic courtesy Sandbag).

Commenting on the report Dr Nina Skorupska, Chief Executive of the Renewable Energy Association (REA) noted that the statement ‘biomass risks accelerating climate change’ is “disingenuous when existing sustainability practices are not considered within this review.

Sustainable biomass power has a really important part to play in decarbonisation, by using wooden pellets that are a waste product; we can keep fossil fuels in the ground. Sandbag is ignoring a huge amount of evidence and glosses over the world-leading sustainability criteria already in place across the EU and especially in the UK, said Dr Nina Skorupska.

According to Dr Skorupska, the REA wants to build a future on renewable energy and clean technology and is are fully behind biomass power.

All modelled scenarios, whether from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), or the International Energy Agency (IEA), identify biomass as having an essential role to play in meeting future decarbonisation targets both in regards to power and heat. Decarbonising our energy systems will not be realised through knee jerk policymaking. It is the job of Government policy, industry, and further stakeholders to ensure that these risks are mitigated as the industry grows. This is exactly what is happening with biomass so that we can be completely confident that, when used sustainably, it delivers demonstrable decarbonisation within a wider renewable energy system, said Dr Nina Skorupska.

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