If we are going to achieve our climate goals and lower energy bills, we need to rethink our use of biomass power.
It is no longer cheaper than new wind or solar power, and experts increasingly doubt its green credentials. Instead, we need to make better use of waste wood and focus on building genuine and cheap renewables.
The United Kingdom decided to subsidise coal-fired power stations to switch over to burning biomass, but it is less sustainable than once hoped. The argument is that tree planting would recapture and store the CO2 emissions from burning wood pellets to generate electricity. But this regrowth can take decades, polluting and warming our atmosphere in the short term.
Given the significant carbon payback period, this “pollute now, pay later” approach does not match our 2050 net zero commitment. That's why the Climate Change Committee has recommended that the government phase out biomass power stations in favour of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. But even this has its problems.
The next generation of biomass power stations will supposedly be carbon negative - capturing and permanently storing underground the CO2 which it emits generating electricity, and replanting forests from which the wood is taken. However, experts are increasingly concerned that carbon capture and storage will not make up for the removal of forest carbon stock, transport emissions from importing enormous shiploads from North America, and the delay in reabsorbing carbon emissions from tree planting.
Making these pellets also requires a lot of waste wood, and because we rely on imports, it is challenging to ensure we only use sustainable sources. A recent BBC Panorama programme exposed that one UK biomass power generator’s supplies came from primary forests in Canada that are crucial for nature and carbon storage.
There are also better uses for waste wood than burning it for electricity, such as creating wood panels that continue to store carbon. The Climate Change Committee has said that we should be prioritising these uses that keep carbon locked up. I believe financial support should reflect this to help the UK's wood panelling industry, limit emissions and prevent biodiversity loss.
But the problem isn't just the environmental impact, but the cost. Other renewables like wind and solar power have become significantly cheaper over the past ten years, but we have not seen similar cost reductions in biomass power.
We've already spent over £6bn subsidising the conversion of old coal power plants to burn biomass instead. But to deliver the new power plants with carbon capture and storage, we will likely need to subsidise the sector with over £30bn of support - the equivalent of £500 per person in the UK.
Ministers recently took powers to give biomass plants new subsidy contracts, a few years before their existing ones are due to come to an end. The reason for this was to cut energy bills in the next few years. While energy prices are sky-high, these companies would pay back to suppliers. However, when energy prices fall, the billpayer would subsidise biomass to provide the agreed price. Despite growing concerns, it would sign up the energy consumer to provide a further 15 years of potential subsidies for this expensive, environmentally questionable energy source. It should therefore be ruled out.
If experts' concerns about biomass emission-cutting claims are correct, this power source is eye-wateringly expensive and a less green alternative to other genuine renewables.
Ministers should avoid giving out new subsidies and use the upcoming biomass strategy to set out a cautious approach to bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which could cost the taxpayer and our environment dearly.
First published by Politics Home. Selaine Saxby MP (North Devon) is a member of the Conservative Environment Network.