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Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution > The Commission's Reports > Reports issued by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution > The Use of Biomass for Heat and Power Production  

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Biomass as a renewable energy source

The Royal Commission undertook a limited study of the use of biomass for heat and power production. This study was published in May 2004.

The Commission analysed the various forms of renewable energy in its Twenty-second report 'Energy - The Changing Climate'. This study will investigate developments in biomass energy since the Twenty-second report, exploring the introduction of new technology and the extent to which government energy policy has provided an appropriate incentive for its introduction. The main focus will be on biomass (including energy crops, forestry materials and municipal arisings), as a source of heat and power particularly through their use in CHP (combined heat and power) plants. The use of crops to produce transport fuels (e.g. biodiesel) will not be covered by this study.

The Government has committed itself to reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 60% by the year 2050, as recommended in the Commission's Twenty-second report. In order to reach this target, it will be necessary to find alternatives to fossil fuels and to bring them into use as sources of heat and power at the earliest possible opportunity. The government has recognised the importance of biomass as a renewable energy source. The reviewed Renewables Obligation (RO) requires that from 2006, 25% of co-fired biomass (the use of fuel from biomass as a supplementary fuel in conventional energy plants) must come from energy crops. This target is the subject of some controversy, but whatever the outcome of current debate it seems likely that in the relatively near future energy crops could be an important source of energy for the UK.

Compared to other forms of renewable energy, though, energy from crops appears to attract little attention. The number of projects using biomass energy is very much less than that from energy from waste or wind power. The Commission's Twenty-second report emphasised the importance of investing in CHP plants, a technology to which the use of energy crops is ideally suited. The government has a target for the uptake of CHP but there is concern that the New Electricity Trading Arrangements (NETA) may be working against smaller CHP projects. Such impacts of energy policies on one another will be looked at in the course of the study.

A study of energy crops now is particularly timely because of the recent failure of the ARBRE project. Other countries have major programs to use crops as a source of renewable energy - both for heat and power - and are developing technologies and infrastructure to enable them to do this. Yet the recent Energy White Paper had few proposals in this area. The UK is in danger of being left behind, and the collapse of ARBRE will exacerbate this. If the government is to reach its stated targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases and UK industry is to keep abreast of developments in this important area, the use of biomass will need further government support. This study will explore the importance of such support and possible forms that it might take.

Proposals for reforming the Common Agricultural Policy indicate that there is support and government backing across Europe for the expansion of energy crops as a source of renewable energy. Payments for each hectare of production land used to grow energy crops will be available under the new proposals. Some energy crops (short rotation coppice for example) can be planted on set-aside land without the set-aside payment being revoked. These payments will only be awarded if the grower has a contract with an energy supplier for the stock. An inclusive approach that integrates infrastructure and farming will need to be considered. This also is an important stimulus for our study.

Intended Scope of the Study

The study will explore the advantages and disadvantages of energy from biomass.

The advantages include the flexibility of biomass as a fuel. Co-firing can take place with very little infrastructure investment. Alternative materials can be used in place of short rotation crops (SRC) or domestic woody crops until crops reach maturity. Also there are potential benefits to the agricultural community in providing a new cash crop, environmental benefits through the provision of valuable habitats, the potential to use coppiced areas for sewage treatment, and, of course, the benefits common to all renewable energy sources.

Concerns about the environmental consequences of growing energy crops and emissions from biomass energy plants need to be addressed and the carbon lifecycle examined. Competition for alternative, short-term sources of energy can be contentious and the wider market will need to be examined. We will also be assessing the impact on other industries dependent on forestry materials, the possible need to import biomass to fuel co-fired plants, and the energy balance involved in long-distance transportation of biomass for fuel. Public concerns about the large-scale cultivation and use of energy crops, for example fears about impacts on traditional farming, the landscape and air quality, will be explored and ways of incorporating them into renewable energy policies will be considered.

The study will address the wider implications for biomass schemes; for example, biomass-fuelled plants do not only use woody materials but can also play a role in waste management. CHP plants can co-fire biomass with solid waste, and some agricultural wastes can be used as fuel. These options will be explored as components of the biofuel process, but the study will not cover energy from waste in general.


Page last modified: 22 March, 2007
Page created: 25 January, 2003
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