forest

Playing With Fire

Analysis by Ember finds that plans to burn biomass in EU coal power stations are unsustainable and expensive.

Charles Moore

European Programme Lead

16 December 2019 | 12 min read

Executive summary

Unsustainable and expensive

Analysis by Ember finds that company plans to burn biomass in EU coal power stations are unsustainable and expensive.

Supported by EU legislation, biomass (mostly wood in the form of pellets or chips) is increasingly used as a fuel to generate electricity, including in a number of large former coal power plants.

This practice continues despite scientific consensus that burning biomass instead of coal in power stations risks accelerating climate change.

Unsustainable

These expansion plans are being driven by some of Europe’s major utilities, including RWE and Vattenfall. If European coal companies are allowed to complete these conversions, it would double global demand for wood pellets.

To fuel these planned biomass power plants, every single year suppliers would need to cut down the equivalent of most of the forest in the Netherlands, or half of Germany’s Black Forest.

Expensive

These projects all require large public subsidy, and yet we find they would produce just 2% of the EU’s electricity. In comparison, every year Europe adds an equivalent amount of new wind and solar capacity – much of it now effectively subsidy-free.

Even in the UK – which pioneered large coal-to-biomass conversions – the government now states that carbon savings from these projects are “low or nonexistent” and that the “cost of any savings is high” when compared to wind and solar.

But elsewhere in the EU, these lessons are being ignored. We highlight the five countries (Finland, Germany, Ireland, Spain & the Netherlands) which are responsible for most of the potential growth in biomass burning in coal power stations.

Key Findings
  • Proposed EU coal-to-biomass projects could increase biomass consumption by 607 petajoules (PJ) p/a. This is equivalent to five new Drax power stations.
  • As a result, biomass burnt in current and former coal power plants could triple vs. current levels.
  • 36 million tonnes (MT) of wood pellets would be needed, similar to current global wood pellet production.
  • These projects would produce just 64 TWh of electricity, less than 2% of the EU’s electricity production. In comparison, every year Europe adds an equivalent amount of new wind and solar capacity.

It is of considerable concern that scientific analyses indicate that, far from reducing GHG emissions, replacing coal with biomass for electricity generation is likely to initially increase emissions of CO2 per kWh. [..] Research has shown that the time needed to reabsorb the extra carbon released can be very long, so that current policies risk achieving the reverse of that intended—initially exacerbating rather than mitigating climate change.

European Academies' Science Advisory Council (EASAC) - 2019

Conclusion

Next steps for policymakers

There is now a real risk that the phase-out of coal power in Europe will fuel a further expansion in biomass burning, most likely in the form of industrially produced wood pellets. This outcome would ignore lessons learnt from the UK and Danish biomass experiments, would waste valuable financial resources better deployed on wind and solar and, according to the latest scientific consensus, risks accelerating rather than mitigating climate change.

The European Academies’ Science Advisory Council now recommends that forest biomass should not be regarded as a source of renewable energy under the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive unless the replacement of fossil fuels by biomass leads to net reductions in atmospheric concentrations of CO2 within a decade or so.

Policy recommendations


  1. Governments should focus policy support on renewable energy sources which deliver near immediate carbon and cost savings vs. fossil fuels – such as wind and solar – rather than on biomass, which delivers questionable carbon savings, perhaps not realised for many decades (if at all), at a cost much higher than that of fossil fuels.
  2. The true effect of biomass burning on the climate must be understood. Governments must assess the net effects of switching from coal to biomass with an integrated approach: carbon flows along the complete life cycle (including combustion emissions) in the bioenergy scenario should be compared with carbon flows in the absence of increased harvesting for bioenergy (a reference or counterfactual scenario). Such analyses should include reduction in the carbon stock and foregone sequestration from biomass harvested.
  3. As recommended by the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC), a coal-to-biomass project should not be regarded as a renewable energy source unless the operators can demonstrate that the project will lead to a net reduction in atmospheric carbon levels within a decade. Projects that fail to meet this threshold should be subject to a carbon price and not be eligible for any subsidies.