Biomass in Zero Carbon Britain: Breaking the Chain of Destruction?

Home » Biomass in Zero Carbon Britain: Breaking the Chain of Destruction?


Biofuelwatch, a campaign organisation against large-scale bioenergy (using biomass to produce energy) have launched a new report – Biomass: the Chain of Destruction – focusing on the human and environmental costs of biomass-focused UK renewable energy policy.

The report states that:

“Large ­scale electricity generation from biomass is a key element of the UK Government’s renewable energy policy. Their 2012 UK Bioenergy Strategy states that bioenergy could provide between 8 and 11% of the UK’s primary energy demand in 2020 […] Although bioenergy includes biofuels for transport, the bulk of it would come from burning wood.

Biomass electricity is supported by generous subsidies and energy companies have announced plans to burn […] more than eight times the UK’s [current] total annual wood production.”

In conjunction with their report released last year – Sustainable Biomass: A Modern Myth – the organisation highlight the pitfalls of trying to meet greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets by converting to baseload biomass electricity generation plants. That is, burning large quantities of biomass (usually wood pellets) around the clock to produce electricity, similar to how we currently generate electricity from coal.

Burning biomass instead of, for example, coal, is seen as ‘carbon-neutral’ because the carbon dioxide (CO2) released in its burning has been taken in already as the wood has grown – there are no net greenhouse gas emissions over the life cycle of the biomass. Coal, in comparison, emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

CC. Andy Polaine, Flickr.


Most of the issues surrounding biomass use for energy derive from concerns about whether or not policies surrounding biomass growing and use will, or do work. For example, do they:

  1. Count all the carbon in the biomass life cycle properly, and take into account the ‘carbon-payback’ time. For example, if an older, carbon-rich forest is cut down and replaced by a short-rotation (comparatively carbon-poor) stock of biomass, then the energy produced using that biomass would not be carbon-neutral in absolute terms.

  2. Stop deforestation and the ruining of natural landscapes, communities and cultures in the process of growing biomass or establishing new plantations.

  3. Keep biomass usage to a sustainable and non-exploitative level. Is it right to use precious land (often not in the UK) to cater for our high energy demands, when it could be used for food production or supporting biodiversity? Catering for all UK electricity demand would require tens of millions of hectares of land for growing biomass according to the report (the area of the UK is about 24 million hectares in total, as a comparison).

Encompassing all of these things, key questions are: ‘is biomass sustainable?’, and ‘is it really carbon-neutral’? And even if it is both of these things, is it actually a good option for low carbon energy provision in the UK?

The argument goes that if policy does not work, then energy from biomass is no good from many different, not just climate-related, perspectives. This means biomass use hinges on good policy mechanisms, their strong implementation, and objective and impartial verification. Are we capable of this?

It would appear that currently we are not. The new report includes the first ever study of a land-grab in Brazil for eucalyptus plantations directly linked to UK demand for wood pellets, and documents the impacts of a UK power station’s pellet demand, sourced from the destruction of ancient forests in the southern US and Canada.

Biofuelwatch member Oliver Munnion said: “This is just the tip of the iceberg, and what we’re seeing is the impacts of a rapidly growing industry and the speculative investments of irresponsible companies, spurred on by generous subsidies and non-existent sustainability standards.”

However, whilst biomass is not, and cannot be the solution to all our energy needs, it is useful in some cases, though its use should be kept to a minimum, as a ‘last-resort’. Baseload biomass (for example replacing coal with biomass in large power stations) is not sensible when biomass resources are limited, can have detrimental impacts globally, and especially when we have so many other ways of generating electricity.

Biomass in ZCB

Throughout the Zero Carbon Britain project we ask, what resources do we have for energy provision in the UK? In other words, where are our strengths? We end up with a good mix of renewables in our scenario, but we are dependent on wind (both onshore and offshore) for about half of our energy on an annual basis because we are fortunate enough to be one of the windiest countries in the world. With relatively small per-capita land area, building up our capacity to produce electricity from wind resources, rather than biomass, makes much more sense.

Furthermore, Zero Carbon Britain hourly modelling of our electricity supply and demand shows that baseload power (i.e. burning biomass instead of coal, or nuclear power) does not help cater for shortfall in electricity demand in a system that has a high degree of renewables in it. When our supply and demand for electricity go up and down at different times, what we need is a flexible back-up energy supply, not one that runs constantly – we only need to fill the gaps, not produce more energy all of the time.

And this is where careful use of biomass comes in handy. In Zero Carbon Britain, there are some energy demands that can’t currently be met with electricity (the type of energy produced by renewables) – some transport and industrial demands. Furthermore, we need to be able to store some energy over long periods of time (weeks or months). Electricity isn’t very storable on the scale necessary to cater for even the much reduced UK energy demand in our scenario. Converting biomass and hydrogen into synthetic liquid and gaseous fuels helps with these issues. In Zero Carbon Britain, we keep biomass use to a minimum. We use hydrogen produced using excess electricity (when supply from renewables exceeds demand) in chemical processes to get more out of our biomass, so that we need less of it.

But how do we ensure the biomass we require is sustainable, and actually carbon neutral? In Zero Carbon Britain:

  • We grow all the biomass we require for energy in the UK. In total, we use about 4 million hectares of land to produce grasses, short rotation forest and coppice. We think that providing our own biomass for energy offers us the best chance of being able to be in control of good policy implementation surrounding its growing and use, and verification schemes that keep the production sustainable and carbon neutral.

  • We mostly grow this biomass on ex-grazing land meaning no old forests are cut down. In fact, at the same time we plant an additional 4 million hectares of forest, providing more wood products for the UK, and leaving more space for biodiverse woodlands. There are no knock on effects for the food industry either.

  • Changes in diet in the Zero Carbon Britain scenario mean we can do all this, and still provide a healthy, balanced diet for the UK that needs to import less food.

  • The impact the UK has on land overseas in our scenario would be less than it is today.

There can be (and are currently) many serious and dangerous issues with the growing and using of biomass for energy. However, with a sensible (and limited) approach to its use, strong policy backing, and independent verification, we can make sure the biomass we use is sustainable and carbon neutral.

One of the things Biofuelwatch calls for is “a major policy shift away from large ­scale energy generation through combustion, towards our energy needs being satisfied through a combination of genuinely climate ­friendly renewable energy and a substantial reduction in both energy generation and use.” And providing that there is still some room for use of truly sustainable and carbon-neutral biomass in appropriate places, then we’d agree.