by Oliver Munion

The next couple of months will make or break industry hopes for new large-scale biomass projects in Scotland. This month we’re expecting a government announcement of their decision on new subsidies for large biomass power stations, likely to be followed closely by their decisions over Forth Energy’s applications for two large biomass power stations in Grangemouth and Rosyth. Forth Energy’s third such application, for Dundee, is expected to go back to consultation following their publication of new air quality report.

Throwing ROCs at biomass power stations

The new Scottish government proposals for Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) for biomass will directly support destructive, low-efficiency, large-scale biomass. This is ironically the opposite of what the policy was supposed to achieve – to “encourage the most efficient and beneficial use of this finite resource.”

But what are ROCs, and how do they work? Instead of direct subsidies for renewables a “green certificate” system is used, whereby different renewable generators get different numbers of ROCs depending on the type of energy system and whether or how the Scottish government has decided to reward it as ‘renewable’. All energy companies are obliged to have a certain number of ROCs. Since they can be traded between energy companies this creates a ROC market, allowing producers who are not eligible for them to buy them from those that are. The costs are passed on to the consumer – so higher energy bills for non-renewable generation and lower bills for renewable generation. How renewables are defined and whether the money actually goes to energy that is sustainable and low carbon is the crucial question.

The proposed changes to the system fall into three categories – a cap on electricity-only biomass plants, continued “high ROCs” for so-called “good quality Combined Heat and Power (CHP)” plants, and more subsidies for energy companies burning coal or oil to convert whole units to biomass, rather than just co-firing.

While some of this may sound positive, in fact the first change is rendered meaningless by a loophole in CHP legislation which means that any power station achieving as little as 35% efficiency and producing even a small (literally tokenistic) amount of heat, even if its only used to dry the power station’s own woodchips, can be classed as “good quality CHP” and is therefore eligible for subsidies. This is a loophole to the proposed subsidy cap so big that virtually every energy company can get their biomass power station to attract subsidies.

The final change, where coal power station conversions and co-firing get even more ROCs, is particularly bad news. This is because current conversions and co-firing account for more biomass consumption in the UK than all the dedicated biomass power stations put together. The current proposals (so far all in England – neither of Scotland’s two coal-fired power stations have plans to convert, although Scottish Power’s Longannet could follow the example being set in pursuit of greater profits) will therefore dramatically increase the UK’s demand for imported, unsustainably sourced, climate and community-trashing timber products.

Scotland’s looming biomess

With these proposed changes looking certain to be approved and support for big biomass already in existence, it’s no surprise that energy companies are rushing to get in on it. In Scotland, Forth Energy have three applications for 100MWe biomass power stations at Grangemouth, Dundee and Rosyth, and withdrew a hotly-contested application in Leith. The new ROCs would make Forth Energy eligible for some £220 million a year in subsidies, or a whopping £5.5 billion over the 25 year life span of the plants.

Unsurprisingly, this funding will be sucked out of the consumer and paid for by people’s energy bills, where most of the energy used is from non-renewable generation – which is most of Scotland. A move which, incidentally, coincides with rising fuel poverty and at a time when energy companies are making record profits and communities are spending record amounts of their meagre incomes on energy bills.

While the withdrawal of the Leith biomass application was a substantial victory, the fate of the remaining three applications is much less certain. The result of a Public Inquiry over the plant at Grangemouth is overdue and expected any time. Almost 1,000 people in Grangemouth signed a petition against the application and Grangemouth Community Council co-ordinated strong evidence being heard against it at the Public Inquiry. Fife Council recommended approval for the plant at Rosyth so the decision now rests with Energy Minister Fergus Ewing, and again this decision is long overdue. Finally, the last piece of the planning puzzle – namely the Air Quality Addendum – for the plant in Dundee is expected to be submitted very soon, which will be followed closely by a final consultation period.

So what would these new power stations mean, other than increased energy bills for those who can least afford it? Firstly, biomass power stations are as polluting as coal power stations (emitting more of some pollutants and less of others). This means that they have many of the same negative impacts on air quality and community health. For places like Grangemouth where communities already live close to the UK’s second biggest coal power station and a petrochemical works/oil refinery, further increases in air pollution only make these impacts worse.

300MW of capacity (all three power stations combined) will require 3.5 million tonnes of wood products. Forth Energy claim that “The majority of the fuel will be imported from sustainable sources overseas including Scandinavia, the Baltics and the Americas.” Experience tells us, however, that imported biomass is far from sustainable. It is associated with corrupt certification, deforestation and clearcutting of highly biodiverse forests in North America and elsewhere. In future, it is expected to cause even more landgrabbing for monoculture tree plantations in the global South, which dispossesses communities and causes violent conflict.

Finally, a recent report by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and RSPB showed just how important the carbon debt is when accounting for biomass emissions. Government policy and of course energy companies don’t include power station emissions in their carbon calculations for biomass plants – the idea being that new trees planted to replace the ones used in power stations absorb the CO2 released. But it doesn’t take a scientific adviser or environmental consultant to realise that it’s a lot faster to burn a tree than to grow one. This means that until the tree is fully mature you’ve got a carbon debt being stored just where we don’t want it – in the atmosphere. And, because you have to burn more weight in wood to generate an equivalent amount of coal, there’s massive emissions with biomass – 50% more than coal in fact over the first 40 years. With conifer trees, for example, its only after 100 years that electricity generation performs better than coal – and that is if, after another century of ever growing demand for wood and escalating climate change, conifers will indeed still be thriving.

These statistics quickly turn a supposedly clean and green alternative to fossil-fuels into a climate disaster.

Friends of the Earth Scotland are currently running an e-campaign, asking people to write to their MSP to get them to tell Fergus Ewing (Energy Minister) to put a stop to Forth Energy’s devastating biomass plans. You can find this here.

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