Every megawatt produced at a biomass station will get 1.5 renewable obligation certificates (ROCs), which can be sold to other producers who exceed their pollution limits. Based on current market value, that adds another £80 on top of the wholesale electricity price of about £45 per MWh. Stations that also use the heat from the power-generation process, known as “combined heat and power”, will get 2 ROCs, representing a 220% mark-up on the normal power price.
Biomass power plants will need far more fuel such as straw, waste wood and elephant grass than can be provided in Britain today. To fill the gap, energy experts predict a surge in exports of everything from Canadian wood chips to palm-oil residue from Indonesia and olive stones from Greece.
In theory, the plant-based fuels are carbon neutral because the pollutants they release are only those they have spent their life absorbing. Yet shipping them across the globe and the heavy use of fertilisers to grow some of them could cancel out the benefits. A recent report for the Environment Agency found that shipping could cut biomass carbon-dioxide reductions by up to 50%.
Today the handful of biomass plants operating in the UK burn mainly wood and animal waste and generate less than 1% of power needs, about 250MW. According to Ernst & Young (E&Y), the consultant, companies have in the past few months received planning consent for, or proposed, facilities that would generate another 2.5GW — a tenfold increase in capacity.
Ben Warren at E&Y estimates that the UK would need to produce about 25m tonnes of biomass to fuel the plants already in the pipeline, but industry insiders estimate that only a few hundred thousand tonnes came from within UK borders last year.
The independent energy group Prenergy plans to build a 300MW plant at Port Talbot in South Wales that will be fed by wood chips from America and Canada. It will need 2m tonnes of wood a year, and this means one ship a week will be unloading at the dock.
Matthew Carse, managing director at Prenergy, claims that it is still “without question far better than burning coal. The carbon you produce shipping it over from America or Canada is approximately 2% of the carbon in the load you are carrying”.
However, Richard Templer, director of the Porter Institute for Sustainable Bioenergy Research at Imperial College, said: “With importing, you don’t know if the trees are being logged sustainably, if they are being replanted.”
Drax, the operator of Europe’s biggest coal-fired station in Selby, North Yorkshire, has plans for three Prenergy-sized plants in Britain. It already uses biomass for a small percentage of the power it produces, using peanut husks, wood chips, straw pellets, willow and palm-oil waste, mostly imported.
To feed its new plants, Drax hopes to convince farmers to grow energy crops — it claims to have identified more than 60 types, but won’t release further “commercially sensitive” details.
This has received the most investment and government backing, but irregularity and high cost are big drawbacks.
Energy companies are bidding for seabed sites to start testing turbines, but a full-scale roll out is many years off.
The price is falling rapidly but it can still be years before the energy savings make up for the cost of installation.
Rooftop wind turbines and the like are largely impractical.
The area with the biggest potential. Simple things such as insulation and energy-saving light bulbs can slash energy bills by a third or more.
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