Haven Power

Is biomass the answer to Britain's energy trilemma?

Is biomass the answer to Britain's energy trilemma?

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Drax Chief Executive Dorothy Thompson discusses the benefits of biomass as a renewable energy source.

The Government has, in recent weeks, made a number of significant and concerning announcements, raising some big questions for the UK’s energy industry.

Politicians have an incredibly tough job to reconcile three competing demands. First, making sure Britain has enough energy to meet its needs. Second, ensuring it is affordable for families and businesses. And third, making sure it does not harm the environment.

This is called the energy trilemma because finding a solution that satisfies all three can appear impossible. Difficult, yes, but it is not impossible. Some options genuinely balance the demands of reliability, sustainability and cost-effectiveness and one of them is biomass. It refers to pellets made from low-grade wood sourced from commercial forestry and timber processing operations, primarily in North America and Europe.

When we compare biomass against the three legs of the energy trilemma it is clear to see why it is so good. First, like coal or gas, it is possible to generate electricity reliably, round the clock, or on demand. We do this using an existing power station and distribution network. When the UK needs power you can always depend on biomass in a way you cannot with some other sources which rely on the wind to blow or the sun to shine.

Second, because biomass requires very little new infrastructure, it is cheaper than almost every other renewable energy source that the UK has available. That is critical if we want to reduce the burden on household bills.

And third, biomass has the most limited impact on the environment, not just at the global level where it is contributing to substantial reductions in carbon emissions which cause global warming, but also on a local level where areas of Britain can remain unspoilt by new developments.

Our power plant in Yorkshire is the UK’s largest – producing between 7 per cent and 8 per cent of our electricity every year – and now, with a third of the station fully converted to run on biomass, we are Europe’s single largest decarbonisation project.

Drax has now saved its 20 millionth tonne of carbon and with our plan to convert half of the plant to run on biomass by 2016, we will soon be saving 12million tonnes of carbon per year.

That’s the same as the entire carbon output of Britain’s industrial and manufacturing sector or equivalent to taking more than 3million cars off the road.

To secure these carbon benefits, delivered to the UK reliably and at the lowest possible cost, it is critical that the biomass we use is sustainably sourced and low-carbon. In comparison with many nations we have limited forest resources.

That is why we source our biomass from overseas – replacing coal that we have also been buying abroad.

A key difference is that for biomass the UK has some of the most rigorous environmental standards in this area across the world.

Despite recent actions which may suggest otherwise, policymakers remain convinced that biomass has a key role to play in our future energy policy.

This echoes recent polling which showed more than two-thirds of Britons support the use of biomass in the UK: because it is the common sense approach to our energy trilemma.