13 Sep 2010

Biomass: a big dead end?

Why is it that government consultation documents are so long? It seems that 140 pages is the standard length. Added to the turgid writing styles which are routinely adopted, it makes it incredibly tiresome to try and tease out the points they are making. Very often, they can be summarised in a few choice bullet points (though sometimes little important details get hidden on pages 92 or 114).

If you want to see a difficult topic dealt with succinctly and sensitively, take a look at this discussion doucment posted on the AECB website. It’s written by two AECB stalwarts, Nick Grant and Alan Clarke, and it deals with the thorny issue of whether burning biomass is really as green as its been made out (by several lengthy government sponsored consultation documents). The answer, even more succinctly put, is No.

You could write masses more about this topic, but the argument wouldn’t get any clearer or more coherent. For they argue that growing wood (or other biomass crops) just to burn is really just another form of offsetting. And that, as wood burning releases more CO2 than mains gas (per kWh), pretending biomass is a near zero-carbon fuel is a conceit. And to subsidize wood burning, which is what the Renwable Heat Incentive proposes, is a nonsense.

The argument isn’t black and white. It makes sense to burn some biomass, as not everything woody that we grow can be used for anything other than burning, and you might just as well burn it as let it rot in the ground. But that's no reason to subsidise it. A more coherent approach would be to subsidise the use of wood or other biomass products in buildings, to lock away the carbon for as many years as possible.


  1. A very interesting article, as is the one by Grant and Clarke that you link to.

    As I read it, the real problem is not really burning biomass but the political and regulatory nonsense surrounding it. The british approach of using 'carbon' as the measure of 'goodness' of a building through a complex system of calculation probably seemed like a good idea at first and does make some sense when talking about oil and gas where 'low carbon' is much the same as 'low energy'.

    But using 'carbon' starts causing all sorts of distortions when looking at any other energy sources, particularly when mixed with the desire to 'kickstart' 'green industries' as this often seems to take the form of subsidising hardware.

    Burning wood might or might not be low carbon (I think it is) but it is definitely renewable and in my view that alone makes it worth doing. I completely agree that the best use of wood is to make things with it and wood lends itself to being re-used, but at the end of its life, just about anything made of wood can be burnt. It is something that individuals sort out well as it is and governments should just leave them to it, there is nothing useful they can add.

  2. Burning anything is a highly polluting activity, particularly solid fuels such as coal/wood. Forget the c02 factor, these fuels are truly dirty and release all kinds of nasties into the atmosphere even under the strictest controls.
    Burning wood domestically, even in approved appliances for smokeless zones is something that should be frowned upon. Wood is not a sustainable resource to power the modern world and can only support a tiny fraction of our energy needs - so it should be kicked in touch along with RHI and other silly government affectations.

  3. If it worked it wouldnt need the goverment to fund it.

  4. "If it worked it wouldnt need the goverment to fund it."

    People have been burning wood for energy since the year dot and using it industrially since at least the bronze age. For millenia it was THE source of energy.

    If you mean is it renewable, zero carbon, immaculately clean and the answer to all our problems, the answer of course is no. AFAIK, there is no perfect answer.

    To explain why the government is throwing money at it you need to think like a cynical politician. It is a way of claiming credit whilst doing next to nothing. It is a way to subsidise industries without falling foul of EU regulation and giving money to powerful industrial interests in exchange for..... well who knows?

  5. Would agree burning anything is a highly polluting activity. TBH I feel it is hard for the UK to make much of a difference because with the US and China and so on our polluting activities are miniscule in comparison. But try we must, both as individuals and as a country.

  6. Just take a look at this link from a major company in the US coal industry.


    Solid fuel burning is not going to end in a rush!