My bioenergy wishlist for the next UK Government – Patricia Thornley

With the UK General Election just a few weeks away, we asked some of our leading researchers and industry partners what their wishlist would be for the next UK Government. Our Director, Patricia Thornley, outlines a wide-ranging wishlist covering issues of sustainability, technical progress and regulation. 

Last year the UK government produced its Biomass Strategy. It was long-awaited and many of us had spent a lot of effort inputting data and expertise. I had high hopes that this would be a turning point for the sector. At last, we were going to be enabled to get on with delivering sustainable bioenergy systems instead of expending time and effort justifying how biomass does actually reduce carbon emissions and fighting for it to have a role in decarbonising different sectors.

I suppose the first warning bell was that the strategy itself didn’t go quite as far as I had hoped. It talked about a prioritisation framework and key sectors that needed to be prioritised, but this wasn’t actually formalised into any sort of “pecking order” that could be easily lifted and relied upon. Identifying priorities is an important first step, but to ensure that projects are developed quickly and efficiently, we need a robust prioritisation of uses and guide to interpretation.

Six years on from the Committee on Climate Change report acknowledging that biomass has a practically essential role in delivering and reducing the cost of net zero, I still hear people say things like “I don’t believe in bioenergy” or “We shouldn’t use biofuels”, even at the highest levels. So I think my most important bioenergy wish is that we make decisions related to bioenergy and bioproducts on an evidence basis. With so many different reports and information sources out there, we also need a definitive strategy on where biomass should be deployed in the UK.

A robust sustainability framework

The Netherlands was arguably the first country in the world to recognise the risks associated with imported biomass and put in place a robust biomass sustainability framework. At that time private enterprises in the UK were formulating their own comprehensive frameworks, some with considerable depth and rigour. In subsequent years, many of the positive elements of these schemes were captured in the sustainability provisions in different pieces of UK and European legislation. However, there remain many loose ends in relation to wider environmental as well as social impacts, which it had been hoped would have been ironed out by now. That hasn’t happened and a comprehensive, robust sustainability framework that properly integrates the full range of issues is desperately needed to ensure that the UK’s biomass imports have positive global impacts.

The Biomass Strategy promised a robust sustainability framework: my first wish is that we deliver that.

A robust means of tracking biomass supply

A key issue in the media in the last 12 months has been a lack of trust in where our biomass is really coming from. Investigative reporters have tracked lorries allegedly showing inappropriate sourcing. The only way to counter that is to have traceability built into supply chains. The UK embracing digital and big data should help with that and we need to put in place systems that provide transparent visibility to build public confidence and trust.

So my second wish is related to my first one: an open, transparent platform that shows the sustainability provenance of biomass.

A focus on exploiting the value of biomass rather than worrying that we might use too much

Back in the 1990s practically every waste incineration plant that was proposed had to go through an arduous exercise of demonstrating that building and operating the incinerator would not “crowd out” recycling. The UK’s recycling and recovery rates were both painfully low. Since then we have built over 50 incinerators and both recycling and recovery have increased massively. The concern that there wouldn’t be enough waste, or that by building something to deal with the available resource we would incentivise an inappropriate acceleration of energy from waste, was ill-founded. There was indeed room for both recycling and recovery to increase, and we might have been better focused on strategically planning the co-evolution and integration of both facilities rather than obsessing that we might set in train an improvement that (if too successful) might then require a different focus. We are so far from making sensible use of available biomass that I think we need to focus on the sensible uses first and worry about the consequences of over-achieving if and when we are somewhat further down the line.

A serious focus on enabling gasification

Gasification of biomass has become something of a nemesis in the sector. The gasification benchmarking study by Aecom and Fichtner laid down some sensible benchmarks, and programmes such as the govenrnment’s Net Zero Innovation Portfolio and Hydrogen BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) initiatives are providing much-needed support for learning by doing. Having made such significant investments in feasibility studies and pilot activities, it is incredibly important that the learning from these plants and trials is shared in order to bring forward the entire sector.

An identified “negative emissions” role for biomass in the hydrogen economy

The proliferation of “colours” of hydrogen is blinding and all have different environmental impacts, pros and cons, and situations where different technologies are best placed to deliver policy priorities. Biomass can uniquely deliver hydrogen with negative emissions and so hydrogen-BECCS technologies should be prioritised and incentivised to progress, not excluded because of narrow definitions of “green” hydrogen.

A high-level monitoring framework to safeguard against unintended consequences

If all the above were delivered, biomass use in the UK and globally could massively increase beyond today’s levels. Many models and commentators have calculated, estimated or guessed the consequences of that. There are potential positive and negative impacts, depending on how the biomass is produced and used. The notion that “only sustainable biomass” should be used is an unhelpful binary concept. Sustainability is never black and white. Every impact is analogue with different shades of grey. Setting thresholds for sustainability can help guard against the worst consequences of poor implementation but is unlikely to promote the best global solutions.

Compound that with the fact that the sourcing of biomass from different locations has different impacts (which can be challenging to predict from a distance), and that every design change causes improvement in some metrics and deteriorations in others, and it becomes clear that, while monitoring and reporting of supply chain impacts by users is essential, it is not enough.

Cumulative impacts of biomass utilisation and sourcing are not linearly additive and so must be monitored at an appropriate landscape scale. Effectively, we need a global biomass observatory or a network of stations that can robustly and independently monitor the impact of sourcing on land-use, carbon stock, natural resources, biodiversity, livelihoods and other impacts within a region.

Some of these things are easy to deliver; some will take time and resource, but none of them are new issues and there is a significant existing knowledge base for most of them. What is missing is the momentum and governance to move forward and turn my wishlist into reality.

Join our newsletter

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

I agree to the Terms and Conditions(Required)
Keep me up to date with the latest from Supergen Bioenergy Hub(Required)
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.