The Environment Agency has backed combined heat and power as the best way to reduce CO2 emissions in a new report, published today.
In their report, ‘Biomass – carbon sink or carbon sinner?’, the Agency says using energy crops or waste materials as fuel for generating electricity and heat could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions if the fuel comes from sustainable sources and is used ‘efficiently’.
For comparison, they say that the best practice could reduce CO2 emissions by 98% compared to coal, but the worst practice could produce more CO2 overall than gas.
The Environment Agency’s Head of Climate Change and Sustainable Development, Tony Grayling, said: “The biomass heat and power sector can play an important role in helping the UK meet its renewable energy and greenhouse gas commitments but only if it meets high standards.
“We want to ensure that the sector’s growth is environmentally sustainable and that the mistakes made with biofuels are avoided, where unsustainable growth has had to be curbed. Biomass operators have a responsibility to ensure that biomass comes from sustainable sources, and is used efficiently to deliver the greatest greenhouse gas savings and the most renewable energy.
“The Government should ensure that good practice is rewarded and that biomass production and use that does more harm than good to the environment does not benefit from public support,” he said.
The report estimates that greenhouse gas emissions of over three million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year could be saved by 2020 if good practice is followed.
To deliver these emissions reductions, the Environment Agency is urging Government to ensure all generators publicly report the greenhouse gas emissions from producing, transporting and using biomass fuels and be ready to set minimum standards if required. It is also urging the Government to provide greater incentives for combined heat and power than for electricity only plant, through the proposed renewable heat incentive.
The Agency says that the best performing biomass schemes are those that use combined heat and power (CHP)rather than just electricity, which is the current trend and use wastes or energy crops that have not been transported too far.
The worst performing schemes are those where energy crops are grown on what was previously grassland using a lot of nitrogen fertilisers. They expend energy in processing the biomass, for example into fuel pellets, and the fuel is transported thousands of miles and burned to generate electricity only.
According to the Environment Agency:
Biomass heat and power is currently the largest source of renewable energy in the UK, accounting for:
- 2.3% of the UK’s electricity generation
- 1% of our heat needs.
It can be a low carbon renewable energy source because it is either based on wastes which would otherwise go to landfill or on energy crops and forestry that, after being harvested, continue to grow and absorb the carbon emitted when they are burned.
The Government’s renewable energy strategy envisages huge growth in energy generation from biomass so that by 2020 it provides about 30% of renewable electricity and heat towards the UK’s overall target of 15% renewable energy.