Response to Friends of the Earth campaign about the use of biomass for power generation and the support provided by the Renewables Obligation (RO).

Response from the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to Friends of the Earth about the use of biomass for power generation.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government



Thank you for the emails we have been receiving from your website about the use of biomass for power generation and the support provided by the Renewables Obligation (RO).

Firstly I would like to thank everyone who took the time to express their concerns to me and to respond to the consultation on proposals to improve the sustainability standards for solid and gaseous biomass set under the RO. The consultation closed on 30 November. We are, of course, considering your supporters’ feedback as we review the responses and evidence we received as part of the consultation process.

These are very important issues and it is essential that we get the science right. I place a very high priority on ensuring that Government decisions are robust and evidence-based. Therefore I would like to take this opportunity to explain how our policy on biomass sustainability has been developed and strengthened in this area, and also address some possible misconceptions.

The primary aim of the RO is to support the cost-effective delivery of renewable, low carbon electricity. It has been successful in bringing forward onshore wind, landfill gas, sewage gas and biomass co-firing, and following the introduction of banded support from 2009, it is now also bringing forward the newer technologies of biomass conversions, offshore wind, solar, wave and tidal.

We recognise the importance that the biomass used for energy in the UK is from sustainable sources and delivers real greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions savings. Therefore we have introduced a requirement on biomass power generators to provide annual sustainability reports to Ofgem on the different biomass feedstocks they are using, whether homegrown or imported from overseas.

The sustainability information to be supplied includes tonnage consumed, its material type, form and country of origin. Generators are also required to report on their performance against a target of 60% greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions saving compared to fossil fuel use and on specified land criteria to protect land with high carbon stock or biodiversity value. The GHG lifecycle assessment considers the emissions associated with the cultivation, harvesting, processing and transport of the biomass, including international shipping where used.

We are already taking a lead role in biomass sustainability. The European Commission reported in 2010 on the requirement for sustainability criteria for solid biomass and biogas, and concluded that a voluntary approach was appropriate at that stage. The UK was the first member state to choose to bring in sustainability criteria for solid biomass and biogas. We also decided to bring in a tougher GHG target for the UK based on a minimum 60% saving versus fossil fuel; the EC report had recommended that a GHG target should start at a minimum 35% saving.

Our current consultation on sustainability proposes we go even further to ensure sustainability and significant GHG savings. Our proposals include bringing in a GHG trajectory where the GHG target becomes tougher in 2020, then tightens further in 2025, so driving industry to reduce lifecycle emissions over time. We also intend to introduce sustainable forest management criteria that build on established forest certification schemes such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Evaluation of Forest Certification (PEFC). These international schemes cover a broad range of social and environmental issues, such as protecting biodiversity and maintaining forest productivity, that are part of managing a forest sustainably. The aim is to ensure whether woodfuel is sourced from the UK, other EU member states, North America or elsewhere, that there are suitable controls in place to prevent deforestation or environmental degradation.

In developing the consultation proposals we worked closely with experts to understand the lifecycle emissions from bioenergy feedstocks. Our commissioned research on UK forests, which informed our current proposals, found that optimal GHG emission savings can be achieved when harvested wood is used primarily for timber where possible, with energy produced alongside it as a co-product. The analysis did not conclude that the use for energy of any ‘whole tree’, a term that encompasses both small and/or diseased trees, would result in higher GHG emissions than the coal replaced. Moreover, for smaller or diseased trees, energy may be their only practical use.

In line with the principles set out in the Bioenergy Strategy our objective is to develop policies that deliver genuine carbon reductions, helping us meet our carbon emissions objectives to 2050 and beyond. When considering our final policies we will therefore look very carefully at all of the responses, evidence and feedback we have received. I would like to thank your supporters again for their contribution and engagement.

I expect to publish the Government Response, setting out my final decisions on biomass sustainability standards, this spring.

Edward Davey

Published 7 February 2013