Today the BBC is reporting that the Government is turning away from subsidies for wood-fired power stations. This follows confirmation from Ed Davey, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, that burning wood for electricity generation "is not a long-term answer to our energy needs", and reflects two important steps forward this year by Davey’s Department that will mean good news for forests and our climate. The RSPB are, however, calling on Government to go further, and to put the policies in place that are needed to deliver genuinely low carbon, wildlife-friendly bioenergy.
The first move by Government was to take action against new wood-fired power stations. Back in 2011 in our report A burning issue we rang the alarm about the large number of such projects in development across the country and the huge amount of wood they would need to import to keep running. Now DECC has acknowledged that these power stations don’t make sense, and have capped support for the sector at 400MW, two thirds of which is already in operation.
New wood-fired power stations were only part of the problem, however. Last year, the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace published a report that found that plans to convert coal power stations to wood would need up to 30 million tonnes of wood per year. For comparison, that’s about six times the UK harvest. We also shone a light on the fact that CO2 emissions from burning wood are significant, but are simply ignored by Government policy! Subsequently, a BBC investigation found that old-growth trees from indigenous swamp forests were already ending out in the biomass supply chain destined for the UK (pictured).
That’s why we have welcomed Government’s second move to curb support for ‘big biomass’. Hidden in a flurry of announcements from the Energy Department a fortnight ago, was a commitment to end all financial support for coal power stations converted to wood in 2027. This is a clear and welcome signal that DECC is serious that wood power is transitional, and will not form a permanent part of our electricity mix.
This cooling towards biomass power is also apparent from new Government projections on its role in 2020. Previously, Government hoped that 6GW of biomass electricity would be in operation by the end of this decade. This has now been scaled back by up to two thirds.
It’s clear, however, that this is not enough. It’s a step away from unsustainable bioenergy, but Government needs to go the full journey. That means a cap on support for all wood-fired electricity, not just new power stations. We’re also calling for the new emissions limit on coal power stations to count the carbon emissions from burning wood, rather than erroneously assuming they are zero. What’s more, we want to see a fresh push behind sustainable bioenergy, such as anaerobic digestion from wastes and ultra-efficient combined heat and power generation from forestry and agricultural arisings.