Government's planned biomass greenhouse gas target unchallenging

Government plans needing biomass power plants to meet sustainability requirements announced this week are unlikely to have any impact.

Biomass burnt in power stations will have to achieve a minimum 60% greenhouse gas saving compared with average EU electricity generation from 2013, the energy and climate change department (DECC) announced on Tuesday. But plants could meet it burning most types of biomass, and the required saving drops to 28% in any case when compared with average emissions from UK gas plant.

Since 2008, there have been growing calls for biomass used to generate electricity or heat to have to meet minimum sustainability standards.

Under the EU Renewable Energy Directive, signed that year, transport biofuels have to achieve a minimum 35% greenhouse gas saving compared with fossil fuels. They can not be made using crops that have been grown on land with high biodiversity value, or land that is a high carbon store (ENDS Report, February 2008).

But such requirements do not apply to biomass used to generate heat or power. And in March, the European Commission confirmed it would not be introducing EU sustainability criteria for the foreseeable future (ENDS Report, March 2010).

DECC has now issued its own proposals as part of a consultation on the Renewables Obligation Order 2011. It wants to introduce mandatory reporting requirements from 2011, and a greenhouse gas savings target from 2013.

Some five gigawatts of biomass power plants are planned in the UK, DECC says, and developers need certainty on future sustainability targets.

Under the Renewables Obligation, biomass plants currently have to submit an annual report to Ofgem detailing the types of biomass they burned over the previous year, where it came from and whether it caused any land use change.

DECC wants to extend these requirements so that from April 2011 all plants above 50 kilowatts capacity will also have to report what greenhouse gas saving the biomass achieved, and whether it was grown on land of high biodiversity or carbon value. "Where a generator is unable to provide the information….they should be required to explain why," it says.

From April 2013 DECC proposes that all plants above one megawatt in size will only be able to receive support under the RO if the biomass they burn achieves at least a 60% greenhouse gas saving and does not come from high value land.

The consultation makes much of the fact that DECC is gold-plating EU legislation. However, the proposals appear unlikely to make much difference to the sourcing practices of UK biomass plants. Firstly, the greenhouse gas target is not actually as stretching as it seems as it is based on a comparison with emissions from EU-wide fossil fuel electricity. An impact assessment accompanying the consultation says the actual saving is just 28% compared with combined cycle gas turbine plant.

Furthermore, a table in the consultation shows that the only biomass feedstocks that will not meet the 60% target are things such as wood chips from tropical and sub-tropical countries.

Most biomass plants planned in the UK intend to use woodchip from North America and this would meet the target. The Environment Agency is also already using the permitting process to ensure plants only import wood from sustainable sources (ENDS Report, October 2009).

The greenhouse gas target also does not include emissions from indirect land use change. This is where the growing of biomass for energy generation displaces food production and leads to deforestation elsewhere.

The target may become more useful demand for woodfuel increases globally and there becomes pressure to clear large areas of tropical rainforest.

The sustainability requirements will not apply to plants burning biomass or biogas made from waste. Plants burning biofuels for electricity will only have to meet the Renewable Energy Directive's sustainability requirements. Several such plants are proposed including two by Blue-NG, a joint venture between National Grid and 2OC.

The consultation does not solely concern issues of biomass sustainability. It also asks for views on plans to change the way offshore wind farms claim support under the RO.

Currently, developers receive support for 20 years from the date the wind farm receives accreditation by Ofgem. As some projects are built in phases, this means developers may only receive the full 20 years support for the first phase of a project.

DECC wants to overcome this problem by allowing developers to apply for accreditation for different phases of a project over a five year period. However, each phase will only receive the level of support they would have got if built in the first-year of the project.

The consultation also includes two calls for evidence. The first asks for views on whether DECC should introduce support under the RO for renewables projects that undergo significant refurbishment to improve their efficiency or capacity. This could include wind farms that are "repowered" (ENDS Report, January 2010), or the conversion of co-firing capacity to run solely on biomass.

Drax has repeatedly called on the government to support the conversion of one of the boilers at its 4 gigawatt plant in Yorkshire to run on biomass.

DECC asks for views on what projects should qualify for support, and what level would be appropriate given such projects would have lower costs than new schemes.

The second call for evidence asks for views on how the government should support combined heat and power (CHP) plants under the RO once it introduces measures to support the production of renewable heat. Currently, CHP plants get an uplift in support under the RO to reflect the benefits of heat generation. DECC proposes to remove this for any plants accredited after April 2013.

All DECC's proposals and calls for evidence close on 5 December.

* A separate part of the consultation concerns changes to the rules governing Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin (REGOs) certificates. These are simple technical changes being introduced to ensure the UK complies with the EU's Renewable Energy Directive. Views on that part of the consultation must be received by 7 September.

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