Biomass fuels the energy debate
So, finally the Department of Energy and Climate Change has published the long-awaited draft energy Bill. I would be exaggerating if I said that this particular piece of draft legislation was a cracking read (although it has its moments - including a whopping 393 explanatory notes at the end). But it does grab the attention with a striking foreword.
Following the old maxim of scare everyone and they are likely to let you do what you want without question, the Secretary of State warns of blackouts becoming a feature of daily life and of the catastrophic and dire consequences for the planet of a failure to decarbonise globally. And that's before we factor in a Greek exit from the euro.
Despite the hype, environmental campaigners worry the Bill's flagship provisions - the legislative framework for the Electricity Market Review (EMR) - will see the implementation of a new set of incentives which lack the necessary ambition.
The fear is that, with EdF now the only main game in town when it comes to new UK nuclear build, we will see another dash for gas to take up the slack. This despite a recommendation from the independent Climate Change Committee that policies need to be aiming for a near total decarbonisation of our power sector by 2030, if we are to have any chance of hitting our long term 2050 carbon targets. Gas is cleaner than coal, but not that clean - at least not until we have commercially viable carbon capture and storage.
In consequence, many environmentalists were lobbying for a commitment in the Bill to a carbon free power sector by 2030. But that was never going to happen; transitioning to a low carbon economy by 2050 whilst keeping the lights on could be a tricky balancing act, so why make that even harder with a self-imposed 2030 target?
Nonetheless, the EMR proposals have much to commend them, although the principal measure - contracts for differences for low carbon generators - are still lacking in detail, with the key terms such as contract length, strike price and method of allocation all still a work in progress. This detail will be critical, because the government is hugely dependent on massive private sector investment if its energy and carbon policies are to deliver, and the market is still waiting for political and regulatory stability over the longer term.
So, more patience required before we get to see the meat on the bones. No one can criticise the government for rushing its EMR proposals through.
But at least it seems we may now have a coherent and long term national energy policy in relation to biomass, or more accurately, bioenergy. What's more, it could be a policy that will create jobs - as many as 50,000, according to the UK's National Centre for Renewable Materials and Technologies.
In a stellar example of joined up government, the finest brains at DECC, Defra and the Department of Transport have got together with some technical experts to come up with a bioenergy strategy.
This strategy, published last month to coincide with David Cameron's rather less than wholehearted contribution at the "Clean Energy Ministerial" in London, sets out 4 key principles to guide policy.
First, bioenergy must offer genuine carbon savings to 2050 and beyond. Second, it must be cost-effective in meeting energy and climate change objectives. Third, it must take into account the needs of the wider bioeconomy. Finally, it must be ready to respond to any risks to key priorities such as food security and biodiversity.
This is sensible, because the difficulty with biomass as an energy source is that it's not always sustainable, nor is it always low-carbon (or, indeed, renewable). A particular and ongoing concern is the potential for diversion of land use away from food production to fuel production.
Yet it does have potential as a transitional fuel to replace coal power generation, and it is a great way to divert waste from landfill. And as a transport fuel, it also offers a solution to the conundrum of how to reduce airline and shipping emissions.
Government believes that, with the right policy measures in place by 2020, bioenergy could contribute between 8 and 11% of the UK's total energy requirement - across power, heat and transport. And that increases to 12% by 2050. The current percentage share of UK energy requirements delivered by biomass is a paltry 3% - most of it reserved for power generation.
Having set out its strategy, the report goes on to suggest a set of "energy deployment pathways" - trendy government speak for low risk developments in biomass use that will likely comply with the 4 key principles.
These include a convergence with waste strategy, namely end-of-life materials as an optimum use of biomass. Other key pathways include use of biomass for power generation as a way of weaning us off coal, and also to provide low carbon heat for buildings and industry, through either biomass boilers or through use of biomethane. And, of course, the use of biofuels for road transport.
This strategy from government is important and timely, because for bioenergy to fulfill its potential we need more research and development. And bioenergy is an international issue, and an opportunity. So it is especially important that we should be nurturing home grown technology development.
Furthermore, at a time when global energy markets are facing challenges as never before, and with a fundamental review of our UK electricity market underway, anything which signals a future policy direction that is supportive of UK technology development is to be welcomed.
SGH Martineau is hosting a conference on bioenergy on Friday 15th June, at the splendid Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in south Birmingham, at the former home of George Cadbury in beautiful parkland. All of these issues, and more, will be discussed and debated by a panel of experts - for more details and to get involved, click here.