- Last updated November 2013 -
This briefing is intended to provide detailed information about the effects of wood-based biomass electricity in the UK. If anything is not clear or your need information on something else we haven’t discussed, please drop us an email at email@example.com.
Biomass refers to any organic matter which contains energy. Biomass is defined by the EU as ‘the biodegradable fraction of products, waste and residues from biological origin from agriculture (including vegetal and animal substances), forestry and related industries including fisheries and aquaculture, as well as the biodegradable fraction of industrial and municipal waste’ (Renewable Energy Directive, Article 2(e). This FAQ briefing focusses entirely on electricity from wood combustion, which accounts for the vast majority of biomass burned for energy.
According to the most recent Ofgem data , during the period of 2011/2012:
+ Around 3.7 million tonnes of woodchips and pellets were burnt to generate electricity during those 12 months. Note that 1 tonne of pellets translates into 2 tonnes of greenwood.
+ All imported wood for bioenergy has so far been burnt in coal power stations, (including the converted Tilbury B power station which was closed in August 2013). The much smaller dedicated biomass power stations continue to run on domestic feedstock, including roundwood, i.e. wood from whole trees. Please note that companies use quite different descriptions and only in some cases is it clear whether whole trees or residues were used.
+ By far the largest proportion of imported wood pellets for UK power stations came from Canada (1.72 million tonnes of pellets). This was followed by just over 376,000 tonnes of pellets from the US and much smaller quantities from Portugal, New Zealand, South Africa and Latvia.
+ With 1.22 million tonnes of biomass in total (including non-wood feedstock), Drax continued to burn more biomass than any other company. However, the figures for Tilbury (both for bioliquids and wood) are frighteningly high considering that they cover a period of less than 3 months.
Please see our map of biomass power stations here. Demand for biomass is skyrocketing, with 8 biomass power stations 15 MW or larger in operation, 6 more under construction or about to be built and a further 40 proposed by companies. This figure does not include the largest of all biomass power station schemes: The conversion of coal power station units to wood pellets. If all of the coal-to-biomass conversions with planning permission and all the new biomass power stations proposed by energy companies go ahead, some 82 million green tonnes of wood would be needed just for electricity geneation in the UK.
There are no more than 10 million tonnes of wood a year available in the UK (and that’s for use across all industries). Drax alone is in the process of converting half its capacity to wood pellets. That would require pellets made from almost 16 million tonnes of wood a year – 1.6 times as much as the total annual UK wood production. Most of the imported wood for power stations currently comes from the southern US and British Columbia.
Southern US forests are rich in biodiversity, and are home to 130 species of trees, 595 species of birds, 246 species of mammals (including black bears and bobcats) 197 species of reptiles and 170 species of amphibians. Now they are being targeted by pellet producers such as Enviva who supply both Drax and E.On’s Ironbridge power station. 
In British Columbia, too, biodiverse and carbon rich forests are being clear-cut and ever more wood is being removed from forests due to the growing demand for bioenergy.  Now, the state government is trying to push through legislation which would hand over large areas of publicly owned forests to logging companies. 
On the current scale that we are demanding biomass, yes – and as demand rises, it will soon destroy forests on a far a greater scale than today. The UK Government by its own admission estimates it will have to import at least 80% of the biomass burned in the UK by 2020. Demand for biomass is skyrocketing, with 42 power new power stations proposed across the UK. From Biofuelwatch’s monitoring of the different proposed power stations across the country , we’ve counted that demand is set to increase to up to 82 million tonnes of wood per year in the United Kingdom. We currently have less than 10 million tonnes of wood available in the UK (and that’s for use across all industries).
The UK’s new demand for biomass will encourage an increase in logging of wildlife-rich forests abroad as well as new monoculture tree plantations, many of them at the expense of forests and the people who depend on them.
Many developers say they will only burn waste wood, which includes post-construction wood (such as wood panels etc) and forest residues (such as branches and logging debris) from UK sources which could not otherwise be used. There are a number of flaws in such arguments:
- There is clear evidence that whole logs and trees are being chopped down to be processed into wood pellets to serve emerging biomass markets in the EU and the UK. US conservation organisation Dogwood Alliance has shown that pellet producers that supply UK power stations are using whole trees for their pellets.  And together with another US environmental NGO, NRDC, they have published evidence that Drax’s and E.On’s pellet supplier Enviva is targeting rare wetland forests in North Carolina. 
Greenpeace Canada’s 2011 report, “Fuelling a Biomess”  shows evidence that “Canadian provinces are diving into a “biomess” by opening the door to large scale clearcuts, salvage logging and highly damaging extraction practices that could double the forest industry’s footprint on already damaged forest ecosystems. Whole trees and large areas of forest are being cut to provide wood that is burnt for energy.”
- A Freedom of Information request to DECC  has revealed that Drax advised them in May 2012 that for technical reasons they cano only burn wood from slow-growing trees with a low bark content. That rules out most residues, which are high in bark. Other types of biomass corrode their boilers. The same will apply to all coal-to-biomass conversions in the UK.
- Even if this were not the case, it is not environmentally friendly to strip a forest of forest residues such as branches or forest litter, as it upsets the carbon balance and health of the forests. Such practices lead to lower carbon storage in soils and removing residues or forest debris from a forest reduces its ability to buffer acidity from acid rain and could lead in many cases to a decrease in productivity.
- If we are talking about post-construction waste wood such as pallets and panels, according to WRAP, there were only 4.1 million tonnes of such wood post-construction wood in the UK waste stream in 2010. There is simply no way that all developers can source the majority of their wood from UK “waste” arisings. Also most of this waste wood is already being used by other industries, such as the wood panel industry, who would otherwise have to either source virgin wood or move overseas. The biomass industry is thus in direct competition with an industry which seeks to reuse the waste rather than simply burn it.
Yes. Biomass Power Stations emit harmful pollutants into the atmosphere, and is considered to be as bad as using burning oil and worse than burning gas according to Environmental Protection UK.  These are some of the effects of the pollutants released by biomass combustion on human health:
- Nitrogen dioxide (NO2): can affect lung metabolism, structure, function, inflammation and host defence against pulmonary infections
- Carbon monoxide (CO): inhibits the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to vital organs such as the heart and brain.
- Particulates: PM exposure affects the respiratory and cardiovascular systems in children and adults and extends to a number of large, susceptible groups within the general population. There are no safe levels for small particulates PM2.5, meaning that the slightest emissions of PM2.5 from the power station can harm health.
- Sulphur Dioxide: Can result in breathing problems for asthmatic children, and shortness of breath.
- Heavy Metals and Dioxins and Furans: Toxic and carcinogenic to human health. There is nothing in to stop RES from burning chemically treated and thus even more toxic wood, too. However, even ‘clean’ untreated wood can contain high concentrations of heavy metals and burning it can release dioxins and furans.
According to a 2010 report by the UK’s House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, up to 50,000 people a year may already be dying prematurely each year due to exposure to polluted air. The previous UK Government commissioned data which showed that the air quality damage in terms of an increase in particulate emissions from biomass could result in the loss of up to 1,175,000 life years in 2020, costing the Government £557 million – just from small particulates. 
Pollution of this sort also has a strong impact on the natural environment.
 House of Commons: Environmental Audit Committee Report, ‘Air Quality’ (March 2010), available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmenvaud/229/229i.pdf
YES, it produces carbon dioxide. Per unit of energy produced, smokestack CO2 emissions from biomass power stations are on average 50% higher than those from coal power stations. This is because wood is less energy dense than coal.
The Government’s own analysis reveals that burning biomass can be worse for greenhouse gas emissions than the fossil fuels they are seeking to replace. This was exposed in a 2012 report from Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the RSPB entitled “Dirtier than Coal”.
Developers like to say that burning biomass is carbon neutral, because the wood burned absorbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it was growing. But the reality is that because biomass contains carbon, naturally, when it is combusted, it releases all of that carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This carbon debt is only paid back if and when a tree or crop is fully grown to replace what was chopped and if soils and other vegetation destroyed or harmed during logging re-absorb all the carbon they had lost. This may take decades and even centuries. What’s more, when forests and other natural ecosystems are too damaged to fully recover or, yet worse, turned into monoculture tree plantations, the carbon emitted in the process will never be re-absorbed. Currently, biomass is also considered to be essentially ‘carbon neutral’ by the UK Government. The result of this is that developers produce figures which show carbon emissions savings, which are completely overlooking the actual carbon that is release into the atmosphere. The European Environment Agency Scientific Committee has warned the assumption that biomass is carbon neutral is a ‘serious accounting error’ and that using biomass can result in increased carbon emissions and thereby accelerate global warming, and recommended that governments must rectify this situation as soon as possible.
Aside from the carbon emitted when biomass burns, importing biomass from across the world produces emissions from transporting and processing the fuel as well. And healthy forests play a major role in regulating the rainfall cycle, storm tracks and the nitrogen cycle, too, all of which are vitally important for a stable climate.
 European Environment Agency Scientific Committee, ‘Opinion of the EEA Scientific Committee on Greenhouse Gas Accounting in Relation to Bioenergy’ (September 2011), available at http://www.eea.europa.eu/about-us/governance/scientific-committee/sc-opinions/opinions-on-scientific-issues/sc-opinion-on-greenhouse-gas
The government has announced that from April 2014 only biomass that meets new sustainability standards will receive subsidies (except for some biomass burned in small installations). Unfortunately, those sustainability standards will be effectively meaningless:
+ Subsidised biomass is supposed to deliver at least 60% greenhouse gas savings compared to fossil fuels, but when calculating those supposed ‘savings’, the government is ignoring the bulk of carbon emissions that results from wood-based bioenergy. CO2 emissions from actually burning the biomass are ignored, as is the loss of carbon from forests when they are logged or converted to plantations. DECC’s Scientific Advisor is developing an evidence-based ‘carbon calculator’, to determine what the climate impact of different types of biomass energy is, but DECC has already announced that this will be ignored for the purpose of subsidies until at least 2027. 
+ The standards rely heavily on different voluntary forestry certification schemes, but those cannot guarantee that certified wood is not linked to even the worst environmental and human rights abuses, such as clearcutting of oldgrowth forest and large-scale evictions. 
+ The standards will rely on company self-regulation. There is no regulatory body to check whether what company’s are reporting is actually true. As we know for example from the horsemeat scandal, simply trusting complex company information on ‘chain of supply’ is very risky and often companies themselves don’t know for sure where their ‘produce’ is coming from.
+ The sustainability criteria do not address the crucial sustainability of the overall demand for wood. Excessive demand for wood is already one of the main underlying causes of deforestation and forest degradation today. Burning wood on the scale proposed in the UK (which would require more than 8 times the volume of the UK’s annual wood production every year) is inherently unsustainable and no standards can change this fact. 
For in depth information on this, please read our September 2012 report, “Sustainable Biomass: A Modern Myth”.
 See www.fsc-watch.org about the Forest Stewardship Council and http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/publications/forests/On%20The%20Ground%2017_10_11.pdf about the PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification)
Most scientists agree that biomass is not automatically carbon neutral and that the full life-cycle impacts should be taken into account – including the ‘carbon debt’, i.e. the time lag between carbon being released from burning wood and new trees and vegetation potentially reabsorbing that carbon again.
For example, the European Environment Agency Scientific Committee: (agency of the European Union devoted to the monitoring of the European environment) stated in its published opinion in 2011 that the assumption that biomass is carbon neutral is a ‘serious accounting error’ and that using biomass can result in increased carbon emissions and thereby accelerate global warming, and recommended that governments must rectify this situation as soon as possible. 
Biofuelwatch has compiled a list of key scientific articles and opinions which is regularly updated. 
Developers stand to gain lots of money, so they claim it is green, clean, and provides jobs. Note that developers British Sugar, Drax. E.ON, Future Biogas, Estover Energy and RES Group launched the Back Biomass campaign in 2011 which successfully persuaded the UK Government to guarantee long-term subsidies for biomass electricity (although those guarantees could still be reversed if there was the political will). The Back Biomass campaing is coordinated by Renewable Energy Association, the body which represents renewable energy producers in the UK and has resulted in the Government promising to continue to offer financial support for biomass.
On the other hand, UK timber industries such as the Wood Panel Industries Federation and the Confederation of Forest Industries have strongly warned against the steeply increased demand for biomass from the UK, because it will push up timber prices, make UK industries that depend on wood unviable, thus destroying far more jobs than created through bioenergy (and ensuring that virtually all other wood and paper are sourced from abroad in future.
 CONFOR and Wood Panel Industries Federation, ‘Wood fibre availability and demand in Britain 2007 to 2025’ (May 2010), available at http://www.confor.org.uk/Upload/Documents/37_WoodFibreAvailabilityDemandReportfinal.pdf
In July 2012 the UK Government announced, as part of its review on financial supports for Renewable Energy that it would continue to offer generous subsidies to Bioenergy. The subsidies will artificially stimulate the market to new staggering heights, with Bioenergy expected to play a key role in the Government’s ability to hit its 2020 Renewable targets. This is rather ironic given that the Bioenergy Strategy also acknowledges that Bioenergy can produce more Greenhouse Gas Emissions than coal for a period of over 50 years (for more information on this, see Friends of the Earth et al’s report. The Government insists that bioenergy coming into the UK will be “sustainable” according to new sustainability standards which will come into force in 2013. However, the sustainability standards do not take into account crucial greenhouse gas accounting issues including factoring in the Carbon Debt associated with bioenergy, or emissions from indirect land use change. They are ill-equipped to ensure that human rights violations e.g. land grabs are not implicated with companies’ sourcing of biomass. What’s more, there is no independent auditing of companies’ claims to be sourcing only “sustainable” materials. Finally, the overarching problem is that a reliance on sustainability standards is merely serving to legitimise the unabated expansion of an industry which is by its nature less sustainable the larger it becomes.
DECC has spoken about introducing a 400 MW cap on the amount of electricity from new electricity-only biomass power stations that they want to subsidise. So far, they have not actually introduced such a cap but, crucially, the cap won’t include coal-to-biomass conversions (the biggest schemes by far) and they also allow an easy get-out for companies building new power stations: Any biomass power station that achieves a mere 35% efficiency and that makes use of a tiny fraction of its heat is classed as ‘good quality combined heat and power’ and not just exempt from the proposed cap but eligible for an even higher rate of subsidies.
The Scottish Government has introduced a rule under which no electricity-only biomass power station larger than 15 MW will be subsidised but they offer the same exemptions as DECC proposes, so this rule is also effectively meaningless. Indeed, the Scottish Government has recently approved a 100 MW import-reliant new biomass power station in Grangemouth which is unlikely to supply more than a small fraction of its heat.
Electricity from biomass is extremely inefficient. Even DECC notes that biomass power stations today are only 25% efficient, with 75% of the energy potential of the fuel wasted. Rarely, more than 30% efficiency is reached unless some of the heat is recovered and used. Coal-to-biomass conversions may reach 35-37 efficiencies but that only refers to conversion efficiency. Those power stations can only burn powdered wood pellets and large amounts of energy are needed to dry wood, grind it into dust, compress it into pellets and then grind it up again. Note that under EU law, the UK is meant to be promoting biomass technologies which provide at least 70% efficiency rates.
 DECC Consultation, ‘Heat and Energy Saving Strategy’ Chapter 7: Combined Heat and Power and Surplus Heat paragraph 7.2, available at http://hes.decc.gov.uk/consultation/download/index-32178.pdf
 EU Directive 2009/28/EC (‘Renewable Energy Directive’), Article 13(6), available at http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2009:140:0016:0062:en:PDF
The energy produced from a biomass power station is heat, which is then converted into electricity. As mentioned above, currently biomass is very inefficient. If the heat can be captured and used to warm homes and buildings, then this makes a more efficient use of the biomass. A lot of companies rely on vague promises that they can supply heat to promote themselves as really green. However, whilst it is true that making use of heat as well as electricity is a better than using it as electricity only:
- It is worth questioning how much heat they intend to supply. If it is a small fraction of the overall megawattage capacity of the plant, then it won’t necessarily make the plant that much more efficient. The Government offers extra subsidies for power stations which achieve anything over 35% efficient, and classifies them as “Good Quality Combined Heat and Power.” This is a complete misnomer: power stations can achieve 35% efficiency by delivering nominal and in some cases no heat to external customers. 35% efficient is actually even less efficient than many modern day fossil fuelled power stations.
- Although theoretically CHP could be more efficient than electricity, all the other environmental concerns remain. That developers might supply heat will not undo the fact that they will source its wood from across the world, cause massive transport emissions, increased carbon emissions from combustion, pollution, and will impact on the local natural environment.
- Often promises to supply heat are in fact unsubstantiated and no more than PR stunts. They rely on there being in place district local heating networks, which are currently underdeveloped across the UK and which require a lot of investment. Given the cuts, there is little chance of local authorities being able to pay for heat distribution.
There are several other campaigns in the UK at the moment. Several have succeeded in getting power station applciations rejected (e.g. for a 50 MW power station in Swansea or a 40 MW power station in Mid Suffolk) or withdrawn by developers (e.g. for a 50 MW power station in Kidwelly, Wales, for a 200 MW power station in Leith and for an 80 MW power station in Barrow-in-Furness).
Even if campaigns don’t succeed through the planning system, vocal public opposition can sometimes put off investors. In Port Talbot for example, an active local campaign group could not stop Prenergy from getting planning permission for a huge 350 MW biomass power station in 2007 but they have prevented them from getting changes to that permission that would have made it more attractive to investors. No investor has come forward and no other company has offered to buy the project since then.
If you would like to become a member of an emailing list on biomass resources, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘Biomass Action Network emailing list’ in the subject header.
Around ten years ago, new thinkers really thought that biomass and biofuels could be the energy for the future. The idea of ‘renewability’ was that you can harvest trees and regrow them. This myth has long been disproven. In reality, large-scale industrial biomass burning is a particularly polluting form of energy harmful to forests, people and the climate.
However, according to the law, under the EU renewable energy directive, biomass is an eligible source of renewable energy which can be subsidised and promoted on an unprecedented scale.
Biomass therefore is also classified as renewable energy in the UK, and currently accounts for a large share of the UK’s so called ‘renewable energy’. In reality, biomass allows energy companies to attract vast subsidies for dirty energy falsely classed as ‘renewable’, rather than having to invest in genuinely renewable energy such as sustainable wind and solar power.
 DECC Report, ‘Digest of United Kingdom Energy Statistics 2011: Chapter 7: Renewable sources of energy’, available at http://www.decc.gov.uk/assets/decc/11/stats/publications/dukes/2309-dukes-2011-chapter-7-renewable-sources.pdf, page 190
The United Kingdom government has a target to provide 15% renewable energy by 2020, and is bound by EU law to do so. According to the UK Bioenergy Strategy , bioenergy could meet 8-11% of total primary energy demand in the UK in 2020. Most of this would be wood-based bioenergy, though biofuels are also included in the figure. This means that the vast majority of the renewable energy target would be met from burning wood. The government admits that this would rely to 80% on imports.
The United Kingdom government has a target to provide 15% renewable energy by 2020, and is bound by EU law to do so. One of the ways to make sure that it provides renewable energy is to offer financial incentives to electricity suppliers. It has done this through the Renewable Obligation Order. Under the order, suppliers are obliged to supply a percentage of their electricity from renewables, which increases year on year. A penalty is imposed on suppliers who do not meet the targets. Correspondingly, Ofgem issues Renewables Obligation Certificates (ROCs) to electricity generators in relation to the amount of eligible renewable electricity they generate. So, in essence, this operates to the effect that suppliers can buy and sell their way out of the renewables requirement. For each megawatt of renewable electricity provided, suppliers gain a number of ‘Renewable Obligation Certificates’ (‘ROCs’). The number of ROCs per megawatt varies, depending on which renewable technology is used (see table below). ROCs have a market value which has on average been £42.87 over the last 12 months, up to October 2013. 
The ROC scheme is financed not by the public purse, but through levy on our fuel bills – we are effectively paying more money on our fuel bills to subsidise the scheme. Whilst this might make sense in the case of genuine renewable energy technologies like wind and solar and tidal – in the case of biomass and bioliquids – it’s pretty shocking. Effectively, the ROC trading scheme operates to heavily subsidise energy companies. For biomass, what it means is that we are paying more expensive electricity bills to finance more carbon emissions, more deforestation, land grabs, and increased global food prices.The RO will close to new generation on 31 March 2017 – but for any planning applications which open before then, they will receive full support under the RO until 2037. A new subsidy scheme, Contract for Difference, will be phased in but the final details have not yet been decided.
For each megawatt of renewable electricity provided, suppliers gain a number of ‘Renewable Obligation Certificates’ (‘ROCs’). The number of ROCs per megawatt varies, depending on which renewable technology is used.  The vast bulk of capacity is in the Coal to Conversions category highlighted in red and receiving 1 ROC per megawatt until 2017 when the Contracts for Difference subsidy regime comes into operation. Note the vast incentive to find a way to do ‘efficient CHP’ which in practise means anything over 35% efficiency (as at Grangemouth) when efficiencies of 70% + are possible if a real use for the heat is designed in. See CHP section above. Drax will be operating at 38% efficiency with no heat capture!
|Co-firing (low- range)||0.3||0.3||0.5||0.5|
|Co-firing (mid- range) *||0.6||0.6||0.6||0.6|
|Co-firing (high- range) *||0.7||0.9||0.9||0.9|
|Co-firing (low-range) with CHP*||0.8||0.8||1**||1**|
|Co-firing (mid-range) with CHP*||1.1||1.1||1.1**||1.1**|
|Co-firing (high-range) with CHP*||1.2||1.4||1.4**||1.4**|
|Co-firing of regular bioliquid||0.3||0.3||0.5||0.5|
|Co-firing of regular bioliquid with CHP||0.8||0.8||1**||1**|
|Co-firing of relevant energy crops (low range)||0.8||0.8||1||1|
|Co-firing of relevant energy crops with CHP (low range)||1.3||1.3||1.5||1.5|
|Conversion (station or unit)||1||1||1||1|
|Conversion (station or unit) with CHP||1.5||1.5||1.5||1.5|
|Dedicated biomass with CHP||2||2||1.9||1.8|
|Dedicated energy crops||2||2||1.9||1.8|
|Energy from waste with CHP||1||1||1||1|
 Department of Energy and Climate Change summary of ROCs banding for all renewables https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/211292/ro_banding_levels_2013_17.pdf
It’s pretty basic maths – you’ll need to know the following:
- The MW capacity of the power station (e.g. 70MW)
- How many hours each year the power station is expected to operate (this could be in the Environmental Statement, but if not then we use a standard 8000 hours per year)
- How many ROCs per MWh the power station will pick up (this depends on the sort of biomass power station – is it a coal conversion, electricity only, or “CHP”? e.g. if it is CHP, it will get 2 ROCs/MWh. For more info, See “What subsidy levels are available for different renewable energy technologies?”)
- What the current value of a Renewable Obligation Certificate is: for the 12 months to October 2013, it has been averaging at £42.87. We use http://www.e-roc.co.uk to keep track of the value of ROCs. Then multiply these all together to work out how much money one power station will make.
E.g. if we are talking about a 70MW biomass power station classed as CHP:
70 (MW capacity) x 8000 (hours it will operate in a year) x 2 (ROCs per MWh generated) * 42.87
= £48,014,400 in one year – in subsidies alone.