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Independent Green Voice

Alistair McConnachie writes

grass pic

What is Biomass Energy?
Biomass energy is created from burning energy crops such as short rotation coppice (willow or poplar), miscanthus, switch grass, reed canary grass, prairie cord grass, rye grass; agricultural residues such as straw and chicken litter; and the by-products of forestry materials, such as those of saw-milling, including sawdust.

Biomass can be used to produce electricity but its efficiency is greatest when combined with the heat produced during the process, known as combined heat and power (CHP).

Advantages of Biomass Energy

  • Promotes energy independence and reduces reliance on foreign energy sources.

  • Biomass production can be carbon neutral. This means that the CO2 produced in its consumption is absorbed in its production. In its production, the biomass absorbs CO2 to photosynthesise organic compounds using solar energy. The energy is stored chemically and released when the biomass is destroyed - whether by natural decay or combustion. The carbon in biomass used as fuel may not therefore contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. However, some net release of CO2 would take place if the growing, processing or transporting of the biomass involved the use of fossil fuel. In such cases, the creation of such energy may consume more overall energy than it can produce!

  • Converts waste into fuel.

  • Keeps UK farming land cultivated instead of being neglected in the face of imported cheaply produced foods. Presently, 1.5m acres in the UK are idle under set-aside.

  • Offers hope of rural regeneration, stimulating not only farms but innovative processing and distribution facilities.

  • Focuses attention and awareness on clean energy technologies, thereby leading to greater demand for, and the consequent expansion of, this positive technology.

    Guidelines for Biomass Production and Consumption
    The concept of renewable energy flows from the heart of ecological awareness which understands that small is beautiful, our footprints on the planet should be light, and in harmony with nature. The purpose of renewable energy is to be ecologically sustainable. For that to happen, the following principles must be observed:

    1. The supply of renewable energy must be local to the end-users who consume it. Thus, importing renewable energy is contradictory to its ecologically sustainable purpose. For example, importing wood from abroad, olive stones from the Mediterranean and oil palm kernels from Indonesia where they cut down the rain forest to grow oil palms, contradicts the purpose of renewable energy.

    2. Large, industrial-scale production of "renewable" energy is in contradiction of its fundamental purpose. Thus too much land-use dedicated to biomass would be wrong.

    3. Renewable energy projects should be used in parallel with efforts to lower overall energy usage -- not to find renewable ways to continue, increase, or excuse, present energy usage levels.

    Overall, we need to be aiming for small-scale, localized energy supply for small and medium-scale consumption.

    Providing we maintain those principles, then biomass has a role to play. However, once we get into large, industrial-scale production, including importing biomass from abroad, we are defeating the ecologically sustainable purpose.

    How Much Land can be Used?
    Rates of production of energy are measured in watts (or kilowatts (kW), megawatts (MW) or gigawatts (GW)). In 2004, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution recommended in its report Biomass as a Renewable Energy Source, that by 2050 up to 16GW -- which could, by then, be between 8-12% of the UK's energy needs -- should come from biomass. (p.6)

    However, to provide 16GW, about "7 million hectares" (17.4m acres) of land would have to be used.

    To put this in context, there is currently some 17 million hectares (42m acres) of agricultural holding in the UK. (p.60)

    Clearly, biomass on such a large scale would require a significant and, in our opinion, quite undesirable change in agricultural land-use, which would be contradictory to the principles of ecological sustainability as stated above.

    Clearly, large-scale biomass production is not feasible in the UK and it would be wrong to encourage it. It would be ridiculous to put over 40% of our agricultural land into energy production -- when it is needed for food!

    However, biomass production, on a small-scale, for local supply and consumption, does make sense -- and it is to that end that policy in this area should be directed.

    Here are some suggestions:

    for Local, Small to Medium-Scale
    Biomass Energy Provision
    • Develop the chain between local energy suppliers and local energy consumers -- that is, between fuel-growers and energy end-users. For example, local farmers, perhaps organised together in a co-operative, could work to meet a contract with their local authority, or a local private business, or industrial estate, or school, or hospital, or private institution, to provide heating power.

    • Provide grants to grow, harvest, store, process, supply and utilise biomass, simultaneous to developing the above supply and consumption chains.

    • Research, development and support directed to small and medium-scale biomass projects. For example, biomass boilers to heat schools, factories, large buildings. In this regard, develop CHP applications for private uses.

    • Consider a Renewables Obligation for heat, similar to incentives for electricity in appropriate projects, where a minimum percentage of fuel used for heating must derive from renewable energy sources.

    • Assumption in favour of biomass in all appropriate new-build projects, and construction companies and councils to justify any decision not to adopt this option.

    • Introduce a "green heat" tax benefit in appropriate projects, to help raise the profile and profitability of schemes that use biomass, and encourage energy efficiency.

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