Biomass exploitation: the developing biomass industry in the UK



Biomass is biological material derived from living, or recently living organisms. As an energy source, biomass can either be used directly, or converted into other energy products such as agrofuels. Biomass is often discussed as if it is a source of renewable energy, yet biomass power stations emit harmful pollutants, produce levels of carbon dioxide around 50% higher than those from coal power stations and necessitate the large scale destruction of forests and the importing of vast amounts of wood.

Corporate developers of biomass stand to gain vast amounts of money – one, Renewable Energy Systems (RES) will make between £43 and £58 million a year in subsidies from it, for example – so they tend to claim that it is green, clean, and provides jobs. Companies involved in developing biomass – British Sugar, Drax, E.ON, Future Biogas, Estover Energy and RES Group – have launched a campaign to persuade the UK Government to provide even more support for biomass. Their campaign has been endorsed by the Renewable Energy Association, the body which represents renewable energy producers in the UK.

However, research by Greenpeace has shown how European energy policies are contributing to forest degradation in Canada. Wood pellet exports from Canadian forests to Europe have grown by 700% in less than eight years and the production of forest biomass in Canada increasingly comes from felling natural forests, increasing carbon emissions for decades, even centuries (see here and here).

Further concerns were raised by a report by Etc Group, Who will control the Green Economy?, released in November last year, that revealed how biomass was quickly becoming a global industry in the move to a post-petroleum society, making huge profits and creating new concentrations of corporate power rather than tackling climate change.

The UK Biomassive

Despite these issues, demand for biomass is sky-rocketing in the UK, with 42 new power stations proposed across the country. The campaign group Biofuelwatch has been monitoring these proposed power stations and has calculated that demand is set to increase to around 60m tonnes of wood per year. However, there are currently less than 10 million tonnes of wood available in the UK for use across all industries (see here for a map of all the biomass plants in the UK, including those that have already been rejected and here for Biofuelwatch’s Biomass FAQs).

The government has a target to provide 15% renewable energy by 2020 and is bound by EU law to do so, yet it is creating a situation whereby people have to pay more expensive electricity bills to finance more carbon emissions, more deforestation, land grabs, and increased global food prices. This is because electricity suppliers are being offered financial incentives to use renewable energy sources, but any surplus Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) that they get for every megawatt of renewable electricity provided can be traded to fossil fuel suppliers which have not met the target. This means the ROC trading scheme operates to heavily subsidise energy companies. The UK government plans to continue to subsidise biomass, as promised in the current consultation on the banding levels for different renewable energies and appears more concerned about how much money can be offered to different industries than about any of the sustainability concerns surrounding biomass.

As the biomass industry grows, there are more and more industry events which demonstrate just how many companies stand to gain from the expansion of the industry. On 11 and 12 April, the European Biomass to Power industry conference will be held in London. With an entrance fee of over £1,600 per person, the conference is aimed at large energy companies, consultancies and investors in ‘supply chains’, which are likely to involve land-grabbing.

Two of the biggest EU carbon emitters – Vattenfall and RWE – will be represented at the conference. RWE is a leading integrated UK energy company and has converted Tilbury Power Station from coal power to the largest biomass power station in the world in an attempt to keep the polluting and inefficient plant open beyond 2015 and cash in subsidies. RWE has aggressive plans for burning millions of tonnes of wood, much of it in the UK, and is planning to convert a second power station to biomass. Its biomass investment will mean more destruction of forests in Canada, the US and elsewhere.

Vattenfall has bought shares in a plantation company in Liberia to supply its power stations in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. AfriRen, another company represented on the conference’s speakers list, was set up to “provide European industry with stable long-term supplies of quality biomass” – from African countries. Campaigners say investments planned and furthered at the conference will mean more deforestation and climate change, more land-grabbing and more air pollution for UK communities.

On 5 April, Shropshire Council’s planning committee will vote on an application by E.On which would allow them to partially convert Ironbridge Power Station to biomass. Under E.On’s plans, most of the electricity would still come from burning coal but around 270 MW would be generated from burning imported wood. Ironbridge power station is due to close at the end of 2015 at the latest because it fails EU air quality rules and E.On is looking for ways to keep this polluting and inefficient power station running indefinitely. Burning vast quantities of imported wood may offer them such an opportunity; even though large-scale biomass burning causes similar levels of pollution as coal overall, it is lower in sulphur and may therefore allow E.On to meet EU SO2 rules. At the same time, E.On could claim over £100 million in public subsidies (through Renewable Obligation Certificates) every year.

If approved, biomass conversion will make it much easier for E.On to keep Ironbridge running as a coal plus wood power station long-term rather than shutting it by the end of 2015. The conversion will require wood pellets from millions of tonnes of wood, most likely from the southern US to be burned every year. This means more biodiverse forests being destroyed. According to a recent study, burning wood from the southern US results in even more carbon emissions than those from any `replaced’ fossil fuels for 35 to 50 years.


Biofuelwatch and the Campaign Against Climate Change are organising two banner protests in April to resist the growing biomass industry in the UK. On 5 April, there will be a banner protest in Shrewsbury, against E.On’s plans to burn wood pellets made from millions of tonnes of imported wood at Ironbridge. On 11 April, there will be a banner protest outside a European Biomass Industry Conference in London. See here and here for more details.