The Future of Biomass-Based Carbon Removal in the UK

by | Dec 4, 2023 | Biomass

The future of biomass in the United Kingdom is entering a critical phase, as the government mulls over the potential of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) as a means for net permanent removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. While BECCS offers the promise of carbon-negative emissions, its viability is mired in questions surrounding supply chains, forest management, and energy costs.
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The Logic of BECCS

BECCS operates on the principle that carbon dioxide emitted during biomass combustion was initially absorbed from the atmosphere during the growth phase of the biomass—typically forests. When residues like tree tops and thinnings are left to decompose or burn naturally, they release carbon. Therefore, capturing and storing this CO2 offers the potential for net carbon removal. However, this technology raises several ethical and logistical questions.

Forest Management and Supply Chain

One of the crucial elements for the effective application of BECCS is robust forest management. Improved forest management can enhance both the standing forest stock and overall forest biomass productivity. However, if consumption of forest biomass increases—whether due to construction, bioenergy, or greenhouse gas removal efforts—continuous monitoring and regulation become imperative to ensure sustainability.

Liam Hardy, a policy analyst at Green Alliance, points out that a sustainable supply of biomass is essential for the efficacy of BECCS. A poorly managed or unsustainable source could negate the environmental benefits. Furthermore, it’s important to consider what would have happened if the forest had been left untouched. Would it have sequestered more carbon in its natural state? The question remains open for debate.

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Energy Costs and Infrastructure

Capturing carbon from flue gases can consume a significant amount of energy. However, innovations such as utilising excess heat for district heating networks can mitigate these costs. In addition to the energy costs, the UK is facing policy uncertainty and delays in the development of pipeline infrastructure needed for transporting CO2 for storage, particularly in the North Sea.

Global Initiatives and Alternatives

Outside the UK, other regions are exploring innovative uses for biomass. Stockholm Exergi in Sweden plans to capture around 800,000 tons of CO2 emissions yearly from its combined heat and power plant by 2026. Similarly, Denmark’s Orsted is focusing on capturing emissions from burning straw and wood chips.

In California, the concept of BiCRS (biomass with carbon removal and storage) is emerging, with an emphasis on waste disposal rather than energy production. This involves repurposing existing biomass plants to process agricultural waste, thereby tackling both waste management and carbon sequestration.

Key Considerations for Effective Biomass-Based Carbon Removal

  • Supply Chain Integrity: Ensuring that biomass sources are sustainably managed and that supply chains are transparent.
  • Energy Efficiency: The energy required for carbon capture should not negate the carbon savings made through the use of biomass.
  • Regulatory Framework: The absence of a unified regulatory system for carbon storage poses challenges for broad implementation.
  • Economic Viability: Without government subsidies or a lucrative market for carbon removals, the economic feasibility of these projects remains uncertain.
  • Environmental Impact: Questions remain about the long-term ecological consequences of large-scale biomass extraction.
  • Monitoring and Verification: Robust systems must be in place to track and verify the amount of carbon being removed and stored.

Harmonising Regulations and Monitoring

With various players in the industry, from private corporations to governmental bodies, the need for a unified set of guidelines for carbon storage and removal is more urgent than ever. Harmonisation of regulations across different jurisdictions would streamline the deployment of biomass-based carbon removal technologies, ensuring that they meet the highest standards of sustainability and monitoring.

Conclusion

The application of biomass for carbon removal is a complex subject that demands careful consideration of numerous variables—from supply chain sustainability to energy costs and regulatory harmonisation. As the UK government and industry stakeholders consider integrating BECCS into the national biomass strategy, ensuring tight regulation, robust monitoring, and cross-sectoral cooperation will be crucial for the technology to realise its full potential. With the climate crisis looming ever larger, the time to answer these burning questions is now.

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