Backlash after report claims that wind and solar are cheaper than biomass

Solar and wind can reliably supply the UK’s needs for new electricity capacity as coal is phased out, and they are more cost-effective than biomass, according to a new report released  by non-profit international environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The report is entitled Money to Burn II.

New economic modelling, commissioned by the NRDC and executed by Vivid Economics, claims that by 2025 (the year by which coal use in power stations is scheduled to be phased out in the UK), even if already installed, biomass plants would be costlier to operate than building new solar and wind capacity from scratch.

According to the report, in 2025, biomass will be too costly to meet day-to-day electricity demand, and will not be the cheapest option to meet the reliability requirements of the electricity system).

If the UK government were to support the construction of new biomass capacity, it would likely be uneconomic to run for any purpose—and thus completely obsolete—within the decade, the NRDC claimed.

The NRDC stated that if the UK government supports another coal-to-biomass conversion at Drax power station via a Contract for Difference, this could translate into an excess subsidy of more than £360 million (€399 million) compared to supplying the same electricity with offshore wind, if offshore wind prices are £60 per MWh or lower.

The most recent Contracts for Difference auction, which closed on 11 September,2017, revealed that offshore wind is now available in the United Kingdom at just £57.50/MWh—half the cost of similar auctions conducted only two years ago. This result significantly beat expectations and adds special context to the findings of today’s report. As the report shows, if offshore wind is available below £70/MWh, then it is more cost-effective than biomass, even without accounting for the carbon costs of burning biomass for electricity.


“The UK government pours billions in subsidies into the biomass industry under programmes intended to promote clean energy. Last year, Drax alone received £1.48 million a day to convert its old coal plants to burn biomass” said Sasha Stashwick, a Senior Advocate with NRDC’s Energy and Transportation program.

She added: “The results of this week’s Contracts for Difference auction put into stark relief the economic and strategic advantage of offshore wind compared to biomass in the United Kingdom. This report shows that solar and wind can reliably supply the United Kingdom with the new electricity capacity it needs while saving hundreds of millions of pounds in taxpayer resources and help the country achieve its climate targets.”

Industry reaction

The biomass industry has slammed NRDC’s report. Benedict McAleenan, head of Biomass UK (part of the Renewable Energy Association), told Bioenergy Insight: “This report is bizarre. Whilst NRDC claims to be pro-renewables, its whole premise is to perpetuate dependence on fossil fuels. Unlike NRDC, we want to see an end to fossil fuels like coal and gas and biomass is demonstrably helping to deliver that.

“These claims rely on bad science that was publicly disowned by over 130 independent academics earlier this year. Then they’ve compounded it by throwing in dodgy statistics about emissions and energy costs that beggar belief.

“The growing consensus is that we need more grid flexibility and biomass can provide this. The scientific community also increasingly supports sustainable biomass, with a huge volume of independent research showing how it supports forests and cuts emissions.

“Rather than relying on fabricated reports, why not just let these different energy generators compete more directly? Let’s remove the artificial walls between them in the current subsidy system and include the whole system costs of each technology. Then biomass will show just how cost-competitive it is.”

Elsewhere, the report suggests that it will be more cost-effective to deploy “a combination of wind, solar and natural gas generation to meet the objective of reliability of supply”.

In response, McAleenan said: “Suggesting generating power with a high-carbon fossil fuel to meet our carbon budget, rather than using sustainable biomass generation, which is independently audited and verified to deliver significant carbon savings, is absurd.”

McAleenan also said that the added benefit of Biomass Power generation in terms of electricity grid balancing, flexibility, transmissions, and backup are only assumed to be £10/MWh when it could be significantly higher than this.

McAleenan maintained: “The report includes a separate extra carbon cost for biomass, under the assumptions that biomass has higher carbon emissions. This is in itself at best questionable, when the life-cycle of biomass power generation is fully assessed and verified by independent, accredited auditors. Biomass is required by UK law and regulators to meet strict carbon emission obligations, which they both meet and exceed.

“The report, however, assumes a total emission of 1,277kg CO2/kWh, despite the maximum emissions being 200kg CO2/kWh, which all biomass generators meet and exceed. There is no basis for the highly questionable 1,277kg CO2/kWh assumptions, which heavily screw the report against biomass.

“Furthermore, the report only includes life cycle assessment for carbon emissions biomass generation and not solar or wind, while completely ignoring carbon emissions from natural gas or the implications or their recommendations to use natural gas, a fossil fuel, to stabilise the grid.”

Andy Koss, CEO of Drax Power, defended Drax's use of biomass. He told Bioenergy Insight: “In 2016 Drax’s biomass generating units produced 16% of the UK’s renewable power – enough for four million households - and received 10% of the support paid to renewable power generators. Biomass is the only reliable, flexible renewable power available at scale. At Drax we’re looking at ways to reduce the costs of this technology.

“The falling costs of renewables is great news, but we need a mix of energy technologies to ensure security of supply.

“Biomass is the only renewable technology which can be flexed up and down to meet demand and provide the balancing services which National Grid expects to become increasingly important as more and more intermittent renewables come on line and demand for power increases.

“The biomass we use delivers carbon savings of 68% compared to gas.The wood used to make our compressed pellets comes from sustainably managed working forests, which are growing in size. Since the 1950s, forest stocks in the US South – from where Drax gets most of its wood - have increased by more than 100%. We don’t take any wood fibre from sites that are protected or officially identified as having high bio-diversity value.”

This story was written by Liz Gyekye, editor at Bioenergy Insight.

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