Biomass or biomess?

Those biomass power stations: how they might look

The problem with biomass power is that you can’t really say definitively if it’s a good thing or not.  Biomass power is clearly a Good Thing In Principle, in that power derived from biomass should be low carbon, renewable and reliable – able to produce baseload and mid-range power continuously either in the form of new power stations or  through co-firing or substitute firing in existing power plants. All good , economical and low carbon. The government certainly thinks so, which is why they are backing biomass power (electricity and heat)  in their Renewables Roadmap  as two of the eight technologies the Roadmap thinks will provide the lions share of the target of 15% energy from renewables we committed to achieving by 2020.  Indeed one could say they are pretty keen, almost banking on biomass – midrange estimates of what they think production of biomass energy can achieve is almost 35% of the 234 terawatt hours of energy supply that will comprise the 15%. Later this year (yes I know it is later this year already) the Government is to produce a biomass strategy, it says.

That’s when you think about biomass in the abstract. When it comes to producing actual biomass on the ground, as it were, it gets a bit more complex. How large should biomass power stations be?  Should their size reflect the availability of fuel in the locality around the power station, or should we be happy to import most of it? And if we do how can we be sure that what we are importing is really as renewable as we think? The problem with importation of biomass is not so much the extent to which its journey detracts from its low carbon value (not much if it is shipped is the answer)  but on whether it arises from sustainable sources. The low carbon value of biomass derives, essentially from the fact that it is recycling carbon continuously and therefore producing carbon neutral power. If the biomass is stripped and not regrown, then the cycle doesn’t work and it is not really low carbon after all.

Then there is the actual nature of a biomass plant itself. If the government is aiming to produce quite as much biomass power overall as it requires to meet its share of the renewables target, then , presumably the ambition for heat and electricity (the Government suggests between 32-50 twh for electricity and 36-50 twh for heat)  ought to be in tandem: plants should mostly be combined heat and power plants, for example. Having electricity-only biomass plants is again, dubiously low carbon because much of the product doesn’t result in power, but in hot air going up a chimney, just as conventional power largely manages to achieve. All this was the subject of  seminar on the subject I chaired last week , bringing together a number of MPs and  groups and individuals concerned about biomass deployment. A centrepiece on the table was the recent report from the RSPB on bio energy (summary here; full pdf here): interestingly, not so much a general treatise on the environmental effect of biomass supply and use, but a survey of what is happening to biomass deployment now.

The survey is really quite disturbing on the deployment front. For as we speak, more or less, massive amounts of biomass are being deployed, either in actual build, or in advanced planning proposals to do so. The RSPB effort, as far as I know is the first serous attempt to look at exactly what this consists of currently in the UK, what kind of fuel is being used or proposed, and what the production will be.

I don’t quite agree with the RSPB on their strictures about imported biomass. Providing it can be seen to be sustainable  (and I accept we have some way to go on that) then low carbon energy is low carbon energy after that, and shipping it doesn’t detract much from its value. But what the report really does highlight is the rapid, rather random building of plants and conversion of others with , apparently very little regard for size or output. Size is, it seems a product of uncertainty about how the  planning system will work in the future. Put in an application for a plant with over 50mw of electricity production, and then it will go to the Infrastructure Planning Commission (or son of) with ministerial approval likely at the end of the process. Whether that is wise as far as feedstock or  a balance between electricity and heat output is concerned is another matter. A large number of the planned plants are above the 50mw output, sometimes massively so. They will clearly always have to rely on imported biomass for their supplies, and because they are gauged on electrical output, concentrate on doing that, and that only.

The report identifies 31 currently operating biomass plants, only 6 of which  actually provide heat (I.e. are Combined Heat and Power Plants). The figures for planned plants are worse. Of  69 plants planned, only 12 are CHP. What seems to be happening under our noses as we await the biomass strategy document which will provide, presumably, a detailed plot of how we get our 40-odd terrawatt hours of renewable heat produced by 2020, is that large electricity-only plants are being installed across the country, potentially locking us into an industry that doesn’t produce  the heat required, is energy inefficient, and hence not really very low carbon.  Which I guess will not be such a Good Thing after all.

I hope the biomass strategy document when it comes out addresses this: if it doesn’t pretty urgently, then the words stable doors,  horses bolting etc come to mind. We certainly can’t get to a meaningful target of  biomass heat with a fleet of plants that don’t produce any, that’s for sure.

What goes around…keeps going around.

Secret footage of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Diverting waste wood from landfill and using it instead for energy production makes mighty good sense.  Apparently, up to 10 million tonnes of waste wood of varying quality is being produced each year in the UK, and the overwhelming bulk of it is simply buried.  Only 0.3 million tonnes of that total is diverted from landfill and used for biomass energy production. Think of the difference even a third or so of that wood not going to landfill and producing energy would make. According to one recent study, several megatonnes of carbon would be saved over the next fifteen years, and economically, the country would benefit net by over £100 million over the same period.  A no-brainer for action, you might think. Stop it going into landfill and set it to work on energy production.  You might expect a lead from Government – they could announce a ban, perhaps; and then diversion would really take off.

Well that’s exactly what the Government is thinking about, it seems from the Waste Review, the conclusions of which were published last month. ‘In 2012,’ they say, ‘we will consult on whether to introduce a restriction on the land filling of wood waste, with the aim of diverting the still substantial tonnages that end up in landfill to better uses up the waste hierarchy and delivering clear environmental benefits’  They’re so keen on getting on with it that they’re committed to looking at other things as well: ‘…building on this we will review the case for restrictions on sending other materials to landfill over the course of the  parliament [i.e. up to 2015], including looking specifically at textiles and biodegradable waste.’

Hurrah! Firm action! But wait a minute, a pedant is tugging at my sleeve. What’s that you say? Waste Strategy 2007?  Ah yes, I’ve found what you’re whining about.  Waste Strategy 2007.  ‘Key policy: – developing collection arrangements and the energy market for wood waste which cannot be reused or recycled’.

Yeah, but they obviously didn’t do anything about it, because, look they’re consulting on it now. Glittering new policy.  Sorry Pedant, didn’t catch that – they did?  You’re right. Here’s the Defra Waste strategy board minutes of January 2010. There’s going to be a consultation ‘on introducing bans on the land filling of recyclable and biodegradable waste in line with the commitment made in the Waste Strategy 2007’

That’s all very well, but nothing happened because only now are they consulting…….. What now? Look this is getting annoying, pedant. Oh, they did consult. You’ve looked out the consultation document:  March 2010 ‘consultation on the introduction of restrictions on the landfilling of certain wastes’ Ooh, and it includes bans on wood, textiles and biodegradable wastes. How interesting pedant. Sorry what was the last thing? The consultation closing date, you say. It’s 10th June 2010. So the responses will be lying around in Defra, awaiting a considered Government response. Good point. But then didn’t something else happen at about that time? Yes, you’re right pedant, the Waste Review was set up with a ‘call for evidence’ in July 2010. And by that time, they had all the evidence from the consultation on waste to landfill. That’s a bit naughty having all the evidence from a consultation, and then announcing nine months later that there‘s going to be another consultation in a year’s time, isn’t it pedant?

I wonder where all the paperwork from the consultation has gone? I might ask a Parliamentary question to find out. Maybe it’s gone to landfill.

Later that day……..

Well, Pedant has been working overtime. It turns out that the paperwork on the consultation has not gone to landfill, but it has certainly gone. Try and raise the ‘summary of responses to the consultation  on the introduction of restrictions on the landfilling of certain wastes’ on the DEFRA website and you will be greeted with the helpful rejoinder that ‘the internet site reports that the item you requested could not be found’.  Your pedant might respond at this point: ‘well if it couldn’t be found how do you know it exists?’ My pedant will, whip-like, retort: ’because it appears (still) on the Welsh Assembly Government website, who jointly sponsored the consultation’.  You can have a look here. And yes, consultees thought banning wood and other wastes was a good idea by about two to one. But the government was not convinced.  This is what they concluded:

‘The Government is not minded to introduce landfill bans in England at the present time, but will reach a view on the best way to achieve zero waste to landfill as part of the Waste Policy Review announced by the Secretary of State earlier this year’.

And the view is (as we now know) that they will consult next year. But this year, they’re not minded to do it. Perhaps several years reflection will change their view. You never know.

Drax, Energy Performance and Aquinas.



St Thomas Aquinas: a big supporter of solar power

Lest any of you thought my last post on converting oil-fired power stations to renewables  was a bit fanciful, let me tell you that Britain’s biggest power station, Drax, is already doing exactly that – converting part of its power output to biomass. It is investing in a co-firing facility that will reduce its carbon footprint by about 15%. And there’s more. The company has also announced last October that it is to develop three new biomass plants, each of 300mw capacity. One of them, it is suggested, might be built on the main site itself. I met with Drax a few weeks ago and they took me through the process and their ambitions. It’s all genuine – and two cheers to them for their biomass plans.

It is, of course, though, about Drax’s survival as an independent producer in a future coal-wary power world. The 3.9gw facility is not backed by a vertically integrated energy giant, and if they don’t adapt, they’ll die. They already have adapted, with desulphurisation plant, beyond the EU Large Plant directive, but an output of 7% of the UKs electricity falling at the next hurdle could involve difficulties for future power supply, which is why it is worth having a look at the extent to which this survival might be linked to electricity market reform, and specifically to Energy Performance Standards proposals within it, presently being consulted on.  I commented previously on the rather strange levels of emissions up for consultation – either a ‘higher’ level of 600 gms per Kilowatt hour, or the lower level of 450gms.

So let’s do the maths. (We’re British here, so there is an‘s’).  Drax is a modern coal plant, refitted with efficient processing equipment. It probably comes in at about 700gms per KWh.  We can calculate the effect of its co-firing plans…..ah yes, here come the figures – 15% off 700 – gosh, just under the 600 figure at 595gms.

Ah, you say, but what about the lower alternative level, huh? What happens if that comes in? If it does, then we might turn to Thomas Aquinas. (“what?!” you may well add – bear with me.) Power stations are not quite what they seem. Each one is a collection of mini-power stations, – ‘burners’ – which operate separately. Some run only some burners some of the time (like the oil fired power stations I mentioned previously). Drax has six.  The issue of burners became important in a previous debate about emission standards and co-firing a few years ago. Co-firing was difficult because most fuel was then classed as waste, and a whole power station would have to have standards and handling in place to make it ‘Waste Incineration Directive (WID) compliant’. The Environment Agency, reasonably in my view, decided that only the burner involved in co-firing would have to be WID compliant, and a problem was solved.

Moving back to the present, then, would a ‘new biomass facility’ on the Drax site count as a new power station or as an additional burner? A question worthy of Aquinas, who famously debated how many angels could dance on a pinhead. (He didn’t actually – that was a later propaganda attack on the alleged casuistry of medieval philosophy: but he did debate whether two angels could occupy the same space. Tom’s answer was No.)

But there could be a modern debate about whether two power stations can occupy the same space. And hang on a moment – here come some more figures – 300mw you say – isn’t that about a 9% reduction in carbon if you look on it as a ‘burner? Still over 500 gms, but not far to go. Just a little more co-firing in the main plant (oops – the other burners). The Aquinians have it, and something opaque becomes clearer.