"On the surface, Defra seem to be saying that biomass burning has air quality issues"

The government’s draft Clean Air Strategy seems to conflict with the Clean Growth Plan over the role of biomass in future low-carbon policy.

The draft Clean Air Strategy, launched for consultation on 22 May 2018, has a hidden warning for biomass burning. Until now it was seen as a low-carbon alternative to coal, but it seems that the government, or at least Defra’s, support for it may be wavering.

The draft Clean Air Strategy states that future energy, heat and industrial policies will together improve air quality and tackle climate change. The government will ensure that the transition from coal-fired to cleaner power sources will improve air quality wherever possible and cost effective to do so. They will “conduct a cross-departmental review into the role of biomass in future policy for low-carbon electricity and heat, focusing on the air quality impacts”. We do not know what exactly this will entail, but we are told that the proposed way forward will be set out in the final Clean Air Strategy, due to be published in April 2019.

Why could this be bad news for biomass? The draft Clean Air Strategy cites biomass in particular as a technology that creates tension between decarbonisation and air pollution: “Biomass burning can support decarbonisation but, without appropriate abatement, it will increase levels of air pollution, unless it involves a switch away from a dirtier fuel such as coal.”

On the surface, Defra seem to be saying that biomass burning has air quality issues, but let’s unpack this statement. There are two caveats: “without appropriate abatement” and “unless it involves a switch away from a dirtier fuel such as coal”.

Carbon negative

Two days before the draft Clean Air Strategy was published, Drax – the world’s largest biomass power station – issued a press release announcing it was piloting a new bioenergy carbon capture storage (BECCS) project. This uses a solvent, developed by a Leeds University spin-out company C-Capture, to “scrub” the carbon dioxide from the gas released by burning biomass, effectively making the process of burning biomass to make electricity carbon negative – taking more carbon from the atmosphere than it puts in.

The Clean Growth Plan last October had identified BECCS as a technology that could help achieve long term decarbonisation. So, if the pilot works, then biomass burning could support decarbonisation without increasing air pollution levels, and please both BEIS and Defra.

A week after the draft Clean Air Strategy, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee launched an inquiry into carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS), to examine the government’s commitment to deploying CCUS technology and whether it has a “plan B” to meet the UK’s climate change targets should desired cost reductions not materialise. The Clean Growth Plan made a commitment to deploy CCUS at scale during the 2030s, subject to costs coming down sufficiently.  The inquiry is accepting written evidence until 22 June 2018.

Any time now we are expecting BEIS to open a £15 million “Call for CCUS Innovation” to offer grant funding for innovation projects that lead to significant reduction in the cost of capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide. Up to £5 million will be allocated to each project, but this is really a drop in the ocean compared to the cost of such schemes.

Switch from coal

The draft Clean Air Strategy has had a lot of publicity for coming down hard on domestic wood-burning stoves, and most stories also picked up on the mention of a consultation on excluding biomass from the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme if installed in urban areas which are on the gas grid. We can see the logic of this: swapping relatively lower carbon gas for possibly higher particulate emissions wood or biomass burning may not be the best option for reducing emissions.

However, what has attracted surprisingly little attention is the promise of a consultation on making coal-to-biomass conversions ineligible for future contract for difference allocation rounds. This would mean any existing coal-fired power station that wanted to convert to biomass, would not be eligible for any government subsidy, given the closure of the Renewables Obligation last year, and seems to go against the Clean Growth Plan, and indeed Defra’s own statement quoted above.  Switching to biomass from coal, for power generation at any rate, will not increase levels of air pollution, as biomass is less polluting than coal. It will be interesting to see what this consultation proposes and how the industry responds.

This does highlight our central theme around the need for consistency across government. There seems to be a conflict between Defra’s focus on air quality and the Clean Growth Plan’s focus on reducing carbon emissions and this will make all potential investors in energy uneasy. There is a growing fear that the Brexit work is distracting government departments from other key areas and this could be another example.