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Bioenergy is good

by Dave Elliott

In a new book ‘The Sleeping Giant Awakens-Bioenergy in the UK’ (Alba press), Stewart Boyle, a former green activist turned energy consultant and woodland owner, who has worked in the bioenergy sector for 12 years, sets out a strong critique of the current status of bioenergy in the UK. Controversially, he takes issue with the conclusions of some green pressure groups who have of late opposed reliance on biomass. ‘Having reviewed the science and the arguments, I feel that some of the NGOs have lost the plot on bio-energy and are using really bad science without thinking through their long term energy strategy.’  He claims the UK could get at least 10% and maybe over 20% of its energy frombioenergy in heat, transport, power and bio-chemicals.

Provocatively, he argues for:

· Allowing ‘first generation’ biofuels investments to mature to encourage new investment in nonfood crop ‘second generation’ fuels over the next 10-20 years

· Encouraging hybrid vehicles using blended biofuels as a key transport transition strategy

· Supporting biofuels for airlines, HGVs and the defence sector through targets and research

· Supporting wood co-firing in power plant such as Drax as a key transition route to pure

biopower, CHP plant, and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) to retire CO2 emissions

· Making the production of biomethane (‘green gas’) a higher priority than shale gas

· Setting a challenging but pragmatic target to increase UK forest cover from 13% to 20%

Buttressing his analysis with many interesting and indeed inspiring case studies of successful projects, Boyle concludes that ‘bio-energy is an exciting, pragmatic and affordable low-carbon solution for the UK. It offers viable 24-7 heat, power and transport solutions and can plug in to the existing infrastructure. It suffers from a lack of awareness and understanding, confused political support, and has been unfairly criticised by vested interests in the paper board sector, aided and abetted by green NGO groups.’

He adds ‘It may be comforting for some environmental NGOs and ‘single-technology’ trade associations to think that you can run the UK economy on wind turbines, solar PV panels, heat pumps and electric cars, but you can’t. Bio-energy is a critical part of the solution in reaching a low-carbon future’.

He argues that, conservatively, ‘at least 10% of our energy needs could sustainably come from a variety of bio-energy fuels, sources and technologies within 20-30 years. Assuming really successful energy efficiency programmes that actually cut energy demand, plus the greater use of energy crops, then the bio-energy contribution could increase to more than 20% of the UKs energy supply by 2030-2040’.

He meets the NGO issue head on, noting that earlier there has been strong NGO campaigns in favour of bioenergy, and claiming that the NGO’s recent ‘carbon debt’ argument in relation to forest biomass is ‘simplistic’. In the report ‘Dirtier than coal’  FoE, RSPB et al claim that using wood for energy will release carbon that is not replaced for some years,  even if there is rapid replanting.—worse-than-co.html.  However Boyle argues that looking at individual trees is unhelpful.  Established commercial forests consist of many stands of trees of different ages. If tree stands are both planted and harvested sequentially, in the order they were planted, ‘the uptake of carbon in a year by the remaining stands equals that contained in the harvested timber’. So there is no ‘carbon debt’ from a productive forest which is sustainably managed – the average amount of carbon in store is constant.

This seems reasonable, up to a point. It’s true that before new plantings start to grow there is little CO2 absorption, so there is a gap, of maybe a year or so for each individual tree or strand, but it’s also true that mature trees absorb less; so it’s a dynamic system. And, as Boyle says, it’s not a good idea, in climate terms, to let old trees rot- generating methane. In any case, using wood for energy displaces emission from fossil fuels, so we are bound to have a net carbon gain, and even more with CCS.

The NGOs won’t like that, or his support for co-firing and conversion (in/of old inefficient coal plants?!), importing wood chips (from N. America) and large scale UK biofuel production. But some may see short rotation coppicing as a reasonable option (shortening the carbon absorption debt period) and surely some will see his AD biogas proposal as sensible? It’s better than letting bio-waste rot, and better than shale gas.  And biogas use in trucks makes lot of sense.

Then again there are those who like biodiesel or bioethanaol.  And that could expand world wide. However, even Boyle admits that, globally, the food versus fuel issue has to be addressed. On that, ‘Biofuels and Food Security’, a new report from the UN FAO saysGovernments must adjust biofuel policies and devise mechanisms to prevent (market-driven) biofuel demands posing a threat to food security from price rises and diminishing access to land and associated resources for food’.  They ‘should adopt a comprehensive bioenergy policy approach, wider than simply biofuels’, for power production as well as fuel, while also seeking to reduce demand for transport fuel.  That’s fair enough- but it is a lot of ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’. Can and will governments be able to stand up against the massive economic pressures associated with demand for producing high export value  vehicle fuel in developing countries?

The global potential for biomass is vast and most global energy scenarios rely on it, but clearly it has to be done right.  Boyle presents a positive case for developing a complete range of biomass options in the UK. Some may see this as optimistic, some even as dangerous. But we need to have a sensible debate about the options. So his book is a welcome contribution-along with studies like that from the EC JRC, which, as I reported in an earlier post, comes to very different conclusions:  they think using wood for energy inevitably reduces the amount of carbon stored in forest.

The debate continues, not always smoothly, with for example Chief Scientist David MacKay objecting to the release by the NGOs of data from DECC that he said was only the results of preliminary studies:

For Boyle’s book see:

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One comment to Bioenergy is good

  1. Ferry

    I agree to some extend with some of your views such as neneidg to know more about carbon cycles when considering the impact of renewable technology and source fuels. However, this does not just apply to biomass; wind, PV etc all have their carbon impact. You also fail to give a balanced argument as you fail to mention that Scotland benefits from employing over 10,000 people both directly and indirectly in biomass related businesses. Equally you fail to mention that due to stringent legislation a large scale biomass plant has to adhere to IPPC legislation which means that the emissions for any biomass plant is likely to be less than that from your barbecue over an equal period of operation. Finally when fossil fuels do run dry can you please tell me who is going to predict when the wind is going to blow and the sun going to shine? Because without a predictable renewable energy resource like biomass our only other alternative is Nuclear. Is FoE proposing we go Nuclear?

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