On the occasion of the UK’s first full day fulfilling its energy needs without using coal since the Industrial Revolution, Nigel Adams has written this piece:
Biomass is making it possible to leave coal behind
On Friday last week, the UK didn’t burn any coal for electricity. That’s the first day without coal since the industrial revolution. It’s a mammoth achievement.
Some environmentalists said this milestone was “unimaginable” just ten years ago. But the UK managed it, and here’s one of the biggest reasons why: we started using a lot more biomass.
When you transform an energy system to run on low-carbon technologies, the two big issues facing government and regulators are: 1) how much is it going to cost and 2) will the replacement system be as reliable as the old one?
A combination of EU directives and UK energy policy have been pushing coal to the margins for years. That’s led to a huge amount of energy generation shutting down for good. It threatened jobs in places like my constituency of Selby, where over 900 people work at Drax Power Station and thousands more work in their supply chains and other supporting sectors. It also threatened the energy supply of millions of homes and businesses.
The answer at Drax was to apply the ingenuity of hundreds of British engineers, scientists and others to convert Europe’s biggest single polluter into the Hercules of the renewables industry. They converted Drax to run on biomass. It saved those 900-plus jobs, it repurposed existing infrastructure and it resulted in 16% of the UK’s renewable power being generated from just one station.
Biomass is a fuel made from organic matter. It can take the form of wood pellets, wood chips, grasses like straw and miscanthus, waste wood and even agricultural cast-offs like nut shells or olive pits. In the UK, we mostly use wood sourced sustainably from large working forests in North America. Energy companies take low-grade materials (thinnings, off-cuts and residues) left in the forest by the construction and furniture sectors – which take the most valuable material – and turn them into small pellets that are shipped in bulk to the UK. This creates an extra revenue stream for forest owners, which gives them an added incentive to manage their forests more actively. So biomass becomes part of our defence against deforestation – with huge success stories across the US, Canada and Europe.
But biomass isn’t restricted to big, old coal plant. It can be used in everything from a household boiler (for heat), a medium-sized combined-heat-and-power plant or a major plant like Drax. It’s flexible – and that’s what makes it so valuable. Just as coal and gas can be relied upon to generate when needed, so can biomass.
This flexibility will become even more important in the future and could save consumers hundreds of millions of pounds. That’s because managing a low carbon energy system can be an expensive process. First, you need to connect new sources, like offshore wind farms, to the national grid. Then, you need to manage the transmission of energy across the country, from places where it’s windy, to where it’s not. Finally, you need to have back-up power in place in case the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining. Biomass, used in existing power stations and available to generate power at short notice, cuts these costs massively.
It’s true that some entrenched campaigners refuse to listen to the scientists about biomass sustainability. An ex-Lib Dem advisor who campaigns against biomass even managed to get Chatham House to publish his pseudo-science, only to be met by 127 international academic specialists denouncing his claims. The scientific backing for biomass is strong: done properly (as required in UK regulations), biomass is a brilliant way to cut our carbon emissions.
So biomass is helping to boost forests, cut costs, support British jobs, guarantee supply and get rid of coal. We need to use it more. In this election, Conservatives shouldn’t turn their backs on the energy revolution – but they should think carefully about the technologies that deliver the desired result. Biomass does exactly that – as proven by last week’s historic milestone.