Thoughts from Hub Director Patricia Thornley on publication of UK’s Biomass Strategy
I am delighted that the UK Government has published such a comprehensive and considered biomass strategy that, rightly, places sustainability at the heart of UK bioenergy development.
The priority use framework makes eminent sense. The UK (and the global energy system) need greenhouse gas removals in order to deliver net zero. BECCS has an absolutely key role to play in that and is rightly prioritised in the strategy. But it is reassuring to see acknowledgement of the diversity of roles for biomass with inclusion of biomethane, off gas-grid heating, transition fuels, industrial use, low-carbon hydrogen and bio-based materials and chemicals. It is right that these should be bound by principles related to sustainability, net zero, circular economy and resource efficiency. However, the challenges of delivering this balancing act should not be underestimated!
The Supergen Bioenergy Hub and Aston University have for many years delivered huge service to the sector via detailed and painstaking assessments of sustainability and greenhouse gas balances. We absolutely agree that the anomalies associated between frameworks (flagged in our previous work) and the vexed issues of indirect land use change (ILUC) and carbon accounting require more detailed consideration. We will continue to provide trusted, independent assessment of key feedstocks and pathways and to work with government to ensure that robust, independent academic advice informs policy and decisions. The next phase of the Supergen Bioenergy Hub has already planned work on ILUC evidence gathering that will prove invaluable and geospatial mapping of resources which will support these activities.
However, we do think that there remain evidence gaps around the actual impact of utilisation of biomass and the associated ecosystem services conferred compared to recycling of bio or fossil materials. Focus on these in future research is essential to ensure informed decisions.
We agree with the strategy that there is a role for both indigenous and imported biomass in the UK’s future net zero ambitions. While we appreciate the logic of maximizing domestic contributions under the current carbon accounting rules, we are also cognisant of the anomalies that may arise if we, for example, prioritise low-yield material in the UK over imported high-yield material with low associated transport emissions. UK government does indeed have an obligation to minimise UK emissions, but we should not close our eyes to the potential to minimise global emission with strategic imports.
We wholeheartedly welcome the commitment to develop a cross-sectoral sustainability framework and look forward to working with government on this. We recognise the desire to be holistic by including soil carbon and ILUC and will support that with appropriate information and evidence.
We particularly welcome the commitment to examine moving away from carbon intensity thresholds, which simply encourage a minimalist response to sustainability. The commitment to examine ways of encouraging maximum performance is, in our opinion, timely and we look forward to sharing our data and insights with government. The UK has been, is and can be world-leading on sustainability, standards and certification and academics are key to supporting that via our international collaborations.
The recognition that low-carbon fuels will continue to play a role in coming decades and that we need to manage this transition is wholly consistent with the recent report published by the Department for Transport (DfT) Science Advisory Council, and we look forward to working with DfT on its low-carbon fuels framework later this year. There are so many variables and options, yet it is important to identify the ‘no regrets’ options when dealing with such high-value and strategic capital infrastructure transitions.
But the most pleasing element of this strategy must be the commitment to deliver on bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). I first started looking at BECCS when I did my own PhD (a very long time ago – so much so that we were still co-firing with coal). In some ways it is hard to believe how little practical progress has been made in the intervening years for a system that promises so much! The work on business models is essential, as is building of confidence in the financial and investment world. This is particularly important given the (welcome) wide range of BECCS applications being encouraged. It is great to see the UK fully embracing the potential of BECCS, not just in electricity but also heat, fuels and other applications – I am very pleased to see this exceed my expectations of the strategy!
However, we must not underestimate the challenges of moving towards such a radically different system at scale. Just as we had many teething problems when we built the early biomass energy facilities in this country, there will inevitably be technical challenges as we make the ambitious move to BECCS. Some of those we can anticipate, but others are as yet ‘unknown unknowns’. So, it is more important than ever that the huge expertise contained within our universities is connected to the industrial pioneers in this space. Of course, there are examples around the world where this is being done, but there are many others where deployment is struggling. I believe the key to successful and sustainable deployment in the long term is sustained partnership between academia, industry and policy stakeholders, so that we can plan pathways to success, while anticipating problems, but critically we can be ready to deal with them when they inevitably occur.
The next phase of the Supergen Bioenergy Hub launches on 1 November 2023 and our refreshed focus on advanced gasification, aviation fuel and hydrogen, balanced with work on sensing, artificial intelligence, mapping and sustainability provides an excellent base to support delivery of this strategy and net zero.