What are biomass power and heat?
In the UK, most biomass power uses pellets made of low-grade wood. But some generators also use wood chips [link to case study], recovered waste wood [link to Stobart case study], grasses like straw [link to Eco2 case study] and miscanthus [link to case study] and other waste products [link to case study].
Biomass is a form of stored energy. Plants convert energy from the sun into organic material. This energy is then released when the organic material is burned. This energy-rich material is a renewable resource, because harvested plants can be replaced by new growth.
This is a great way to replace fossil fuels. By replacing coal power stations with biomass, we can cut carbon emissions by over 80%.
Renewable and reliable
This flexibility helps to drive down the costs of decarbonising our energy system. It supports more intermittent technologies like wind and solar, because it can step in when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.
Why do we need biomass?
The UK needs a wide range of these low-carbon technologies. This is because we have different needs at different times and because we have such a varied national geography. For example, the UK often has sunny, windy days in the summer. In the winter, we have much colder, longer nights with less wind. It also costs money to transmit electricity across the UK from generator to consumer.
Biomass is a low-carbon, low-cost way to even these things out. And it’s a very flexible fuel:
- We can move it around the country easily;
- It can be used in big and small power stations;
- It can be used for heat, power or both;
- And it can be scaled up when we need more of it (e.g. in the winter or at night), or stored when we need less.
Biomass is therefore ‘dispatchable’ – ready when we need it.
The UK needs more biomass power
Yet biomass emits significantly less carbon while also guaranteeing capacity. We believe biomass should be supported more by government policies to reduce the UK’s dependence on polluting fossil fuels. We can build biomass stations quickly, access a ready supply of biomass feedstock and even convert existing power stations to use biomass instead of coal.
Click here to write to your local MP and support biomass.
Guaranteed carbon savings
Fossil fuels release carbon into the atmosphere that have been locked underground for millions of years (in the form of coal, gas and oil). That is the leading cause of climate change.
Biomass, on the other hand, uses nature’s continuous cycle of regrowth to provide a renewable energy source. When biomass is burned, the carbon emitted can be re-absorbed by growing plants and trees. Replanting the harvested plants helps to make sure nature’s continuous cycle of regrowth is not interrupted, so there is no net contribution of carbon to the atmosphere.
We can manage growth rates of biomass resources so that we never use more than is grown. This helps to support forests and agricultural resources that act as ‘carbon sinks’ – i.e. they remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they release. Bioenergy is at the back of the queue of commercial wood users, taking the materials they reject – such as smaller branches and forestry thinnings. This provides an extra income for the forest owner or farmer, who can sell materials that would otherwise be burned or left to rot and provides them with an added incentive to manage the forest more actively.
Biomass generators in the UK must demonstrate at least a 70% cut in carbon emissions across their whole supple chain. In some cases, where biomass is directly replacing coal (i.e. the coal station is converted to biomass), we can cut carbon emissions by over 80%.
Making sure the system works
These regulations require biomass generators to report on their entire supply chain and to demonstrate that they are both legal and sustainable. They require a cut in greenhouse gases of at least 70% compared to fossil fuels, as well as a range of protections for ecosystems and local communities. These reports are independently verified by auditors.
In addition to the Sustainability Criteria, forests are protected by local laws and regulations. The UK Government has also commissioned a number of studies into biomass sustainability, and independent studies are conducted by academic institutions. These studies have repeatedly demonstrated that, when managed responsibly, biomass is a great way to replace fossil fuels. You can find out more about the scientific literature and government studies in our Resource Centre. [Link]
Good value: cutting the cost of decarbonisation
Biomass helps to lower the costs of energy transition in a number of ways:
- It can make use of existing infrastructure, such as old coal stations that can be converted to run on biomass.
- This reduces the need for new facilities and new grid connections. It also reduces the wider impact on local workforces and communities.
- It provides a cost-effective way to manage the grid. ‘Intermittent’ technologies require more effort (and cost) to balance supply and demand on the electricity grid.
- It lowers demand in the Capacity Market. The UK uses a mechanism called the ‘Capacity Market’ to subsidise generators who can guarantee electricity capacity. This is paid for by energy bill payers. Biomass can offer a guaranteed energy supply, which helps to lower the amount the Government must procure through the Capacity Market, thus saving consumers money.
- The UK Government calculated that biomass is one of the lowest forms of renewable electricity [Link to CfD admin strike prices]. However, that calculation was some years ago and major improvements have been made since, driving the cost down further.
- Biomass makes use of a growing resource from stable, developed countries. This stability and increasing abundance helps to guard against price spikes and long-term increases, which cuts costs for consumers.
Reliable: protecting the UK’s energy security
However, the UK is seeing a major shift away from large, centralised power stations that rely on coal and gas. We are replacing them with smaller, distributed sources, many of which only operate in certain conditions. These are more difficult to manage, because they are less predictable and there’s more of them spread across more locations.
To ensure this system works effectively and affordably, we need back-up technologies that provide a ‘baseload’ and can ramp up when demand is high or supply is low.
Biomass supports low-cost energy security in a number of ways:
- We can convert coal stations to biomass, which lessens the impact of the energy transition
- Biomass can provide a baseload, the basic amount of electricity needed by the economy most of the time
- Biomass can be easily scaled up at short notice to meet higher demand or make up for lower supply of other energy sources
- Because it’s a flexible, manageable energy resource, it lowers the need for procuring extra guaranteed capacity through the UK’s Capacity Market
- Biomass can be moved around the UK, which lowers the costs of electricity transmission
- Biomass can be used in small, medium and large power stations, meeting localised or national demand
- It can also be used for heat, power or both, meaning there’s a secondary market to smooth out changes in supply and demand
- Biomass is usually sourced in stable countries like the USA and Canada, which lowers the chances of price spikes or political risks
- Biomass is a growing resource, which helps to lower the risks of supply problems.
Good for Britain: investing in jobs and prosperity
- Around 15,000 people work in the UK’s biomass sector, including its supply chain
- Biomass can and does operate in every part of the country, meaning a well-balanced regional workforce
- Using forestry and agricultural by-products helps to support rural economies with additional revenues
- It is a fuel that is well-suited to Combined Heat and Power plant, which is an efficient way for heavy industries to reuse organic waste and by-products and cut down on energy costs
- The circular economy is a growing resource for the energy sector. Recovered wood could provide 4.5million tonnes of fuel each year in the UK alone
- Converting coal plant ensures the future of thousands of people in the local workforce – from the stations themselves and right along the supply chains
- Biomass can be shipped efficiently. We currently import the majority of our biomass, which has led to major investments in international shipping infrastructure and trade with EU and non-EU countries, supporting strong post-Brexit trade relations.
What about the future of biomass?
- Converting power stations
Old coal power stations are being driven off the electricity system. This is helping to cut carbon emissions, but it also impacts the system operator, station owners, workforces and communities near to these stations. To lower the impact, power stations can be converted to biomass. This lowers the cost of replacing the power stations, provides investors with longer-term returns and benefits local communities and supply chains.
- Removing coal and other fossil fuels
Fossil fuels like coal and gas may release carbon into the atmosphere, but they provide a useful back-up for the energy system because they’re dispatchable (i.e. ready when needed). Biomass is a great replacement, since it provides the same capacity to ramp up or down as required. This is important as we introduce more intermittent technologies, like wind and solar, onto the energy system. More intermittency raises the need for back-up dispatchable sources.
- Distributed energy
Biomass is flexible enough to be used in big and small power and CHP stations. This means it can help the electricity system to adapt away from large, centralised power. It can also make use of localised feedstocks, such as straw from local farms. [Link to Eco2]
- Decarbonising heat
If we are to meet our carbon budgets in the years ahead, decarbonising the heat sector is a major challenge. Biomass is already a major provider of renewable heat. Improving efficiencies and economies of scale mean that biomass can help the domestic sector make even more cuts. Combined Heat and Power (CHP) is a key way to support industry in decarbonising both heat and electricity together.
- BECCS and thriving forests
International authorities have recognised that we need to actively remove carbon from the atmosphere as well as cutting emissions. This will mean thriving forests (which are highly efficient at absorbing carbon) combined with ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ (CCS). CCS removes carbon from power station emissions. Bioenergy with CCS (‘BECCS’) is seen as a key long-term route to suck carbon out of the atmosphere whilst also generating electricity.
- Long-term fuel
Biomass uses a stable, growing resource based on materials that are available and used everywhere in the world. Whether low-grade wood from a thriving forestry sector, or straw and other agricultural products, biomass is a plentiful fuel that can supply energy for decades to come.