Biomass Power Plant Madness

There are fifteen biomass power plants approved in the United Kingdom. Three years ago the first application for a biomass power plant was being made in Port Talbot; I was against this project then and I am dismayed that so many additional power plants designed to generate electricity by burning wood have been approved. There are dozens more biomass power plants being proposed.

In Massachusetts last year 120,000 voters petitioned to end biomass subsidy, without which all biomass plants are uneconomic. In response, the Secretary of Energy & Environmental Affairs undertook to change state laws to ensure that biomass power plants meet strict standards for forest protection, greenhouse gas emissions and efficiency. As a result biomass power in Massachusetts will not be subsidised by energy credits to pollute the atmosphere and destroy forests.

In the United Kingdom we are slower to smell the coffee. Science shows that when considering the whole life cycle of biomass burning to generate electricity the emissions created are at least comparable with those created by biomass power plants.

Of course, you can make biomass power plants fairly clean in terms of soot and particulate pollution, but you cannot avoid the carbon dioxide emissions that come from burning wood. You also cannot help but wonder where will all the wood come from to feed dozens of biomass power plants?

There are some forests in the United Kingdom, but managing them to create wood fuel will change their character and biodiversity for the worse and make access to them more difficult.

Most of the wood need to fuel biomass power plants will have to be imported. I expect that ultimately it will be imported from countries where the environmental laws are weak and where there is no guarantee that the cropping of the trees will be undertaken in a way that does not harm the environment.

The wood will locally be processed into wood chip (presumably using fossil fuel generated electricity) and then transported by oil burning vessels to a United Kingdom port and thence by road to the power plants. The cost in terms of emissions of getting wood chip from the forest (say in Russia) to a power plant in the aptly named Blackburn Meadows or Peterborough will be significant. Wood chip is not dense and it has, by volume, significantly less calorific vale than coal oil or gas.

If we in the United Kingdom end up with three dozen wood chip burning power plants we shall find the following consequences:

  • Emissions of greenhouse gas will increase
  • Air quality will decrease
  • We shall not be energy independent
  • Wood chip will become more expensive, driving up energy costs

These four consequences are exactly the opposite of what policy makers hope to achieve by permitting biomass power plants.

The folk of Massachusetts understood these issues and by debate persuade the state authorities to review their policy. In the United Kingdom there is little in the way of public debate; the politicians have on advice ticked the biomass power station box and moved on. The decision will return to haunt all of us. It seems to me simple and obvious that we should not have wood burning power plants in the United Kingdom, or indeed anywhere else.

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