The burning issue: Is biomass energy as green as it appears?

The number of sites generating power by burning trees or plants has quadrupled in Scotland in the last five years.
The number of sites generating power by burning trees or plants has quadrupled in Scotland in the last five years.

The number of Scottish power plants burning trees or plant material to generate renewable energy has quadrupled since 2014.

The energy produced is enough to power an estimated 400,000 homes, but environmentalists claim biomass energy isn’t as green as it appears.

Scotland's biomass sites generate enough energy to power 400,000 homes.

Scotland's biomass sites generate enough energy to power 400,000 homes.

When people think of clean energy, wind turbines and solar panels often come to mind.

But biomass power plants – a less well-known method of generating renewable electricity – are booming across the UK and environmental campaigners have raised doubts about their green credentials.

The burning of trees or plant matter – known as plant biomass – now accounts for more than a fifth of the UK’s renewable energy, second only to wind power.

The number of plant biomass power plants in the UK has more than trebled in four years, from 135 in 2014 to 429 in 2018.

Between them, they now produce enough energy to power around 7.4 million homes, analysis by the JPIMedia Data Unit has found.

In Scotland, the number has quadrupled from 18 biomass sites in 2014 to 72 by 2018.

Unlike other forms of green energy, biomass plants produce greenhouse gases. Across the country, the rise in biomass means its total greenhouse gas emissions have nearly reached the amount produced by coal.

The industry says wood is sourced from renewable forests, with new trees being planted which store carbon and help to offset the emissions produced.

But with the environment proving a key policy battleground in this year’s General Election, campaigners are calling for the practice to come under more scrutiny.

Katja Garson, forest and climate campaigner at European campaign group Fern, said: “It is very concerning that in the global push to reduce emissions, more is not being said about the climate impacts of harvesting and burning wood.”

Critics have also raised concerns that some power plants ship wood in from overseas, saying this has an added impact on the environment.

The UK now imports 7.8 million tonnes of wood pellets a year, more than 20 times the amount imported a decade ago. Most comes from the USA and Canada, data from the Office for National Statistics shows.

Campaigners are also urging the Government to rethink the £1.3 billion in annual subsidies that the biomass industry gets.

Almuth Ernsting, of the pressure group Biofuelwatch, said the Government should redirect subsidies to “genuinely low-carbon renewable energy” instead.

“For the climate, electricity from forest biomass is no better than electricity from coal,” she said. “Both are completely incompatible with the need to rapidly reduce carbon emissions.”

However, Benedict McAleenan, senior advisor to the Renewable Energy Association, said: “Pretending that biomass is somehow no better than coal means ignoring a whole host of facts.

“It particularly misunderstands the way forestry works, ignores the important role of regulations and forgets the fact that trees are being regrown all the time.

“In reality, UK rules are world-leading and prevent unsustainable practices.”

Mr McAleenan said technology being developed called Carbon Capture and Storage would allow biomass plants to “suck carbon out of the atmosphere”, reducing the emissions they produce.

He said it would not be possible for the UK to hit net zero-carbon without using bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage.

Scotland’s carbon reduction ambitions came a step closer with ground-breaking new charter signed by Government and industry last week.

A new alliance of industry, academics and Government officially launched Scotland’s programme to deliver the country’s programme of industrial decarbonisation through the deployment of the UK’s first carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) technology.

The industry led coalition, known as NECCUS, will be instrumental in driving forward the development of CCUS which is recognised as essential if Scotland is to meet its target of reducing the country’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2045.

CCUS is becoming increasingly commonplace around the world as a way of mitigating climate change.

At its simplest, the technology involves capturing the carbon that is emitted from power plants or energy intensive industries such as chemical and steel producers and then storing the greenhouse gas safely and permanently in rock formations deep below the seabed.

Scotland’s project will take this technique further by creating hydrogen which can be used as an alternative to high carbon fuels such as coal, oil and gas for heat and power.

CCUS coupled with hydrogen production alongside renewable energy and reforestation – as well as more sustainable production of food and consumer goods – is seen as an essential component of Scotland’s carbon emission reduction target five years before the rest of the UK.

The first CCUS plant is expected to be operational by 2024.

Mike Smith, NECCUS CEO, said: “We’ve made great progress with wind, solar and other renewable technologies over the last 10 years.

“But the need to decarbonise our economy is urgent so we must build on the good start the UK has made by addressing the hard to decarbonise sectors like heat, heavy industry, transport, and chemicals.

“The only way we can achieve that is with the deployment of CCUS. NECCUS, with its unrivalled support from all sectors of industry, academia and Government is now set to deliver on doing just that.”