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Biomass: Power Generation

Volume 836: debated on Wednesday 13 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what evidence they have that power generation from biomass is (1) good value for the taxpayer, (2) not leading to forest degradation in other countries, and (3) compatible with reaching net zero emissions by 2050.

My Lords, biomass plays a vital role in ensuring that the electricity system is both reliable and low-carbon by providing dispatchable power when intermittent renewables are not available. Generators receive subsidies only for electricity generated from biomass that is compliant with stringent sustainability criteria. As set out in the biomass strategy, the Government will review sustainability criteria this year. The Climate Change Committee is clear that sustainable biomass can provide a low-carbon and renewable energy source.

I thank the noble Lord very much for his Answer, but it seems incorrect that we should fund any sort of forest degradation, either in this country or in others, such as Canada or the USA. We know that some countries are cutting down old-growth forests to feed companies here in England, such as Drax. A tree planted today, even if you replace it, is not going to sequester carbon until, probably, the end of the century—certainly not within the timeframe that we need. I hope that the Minister can agree with me on that point at least. Can he also agree that, given the short timeframe we are operating in, we should question, or potentially remove, the renewable classification from biomass electricity for the very big companies in this country, such as Drax?

I can agree with much of what the noble Baroness says but, like everything else, the situation is more complicated than that. There are many forests across the world—we are talking about forests in the US and Canada here; they are not third-world countries—that are renewable, sustainable and properly managed. The vast majority of the biomass used is a by-product from existing wood cultivation. The main wood is used for forestry, boards, joinery, et cetera, and the by-product is used for biomass. Not permitting biomass would not necessarily result in those forests just carrying on as they are.

My Lords, will my noble friend look clearly at developing more home-produced products, such as fast-growing willow coppice, that will both give a sustainable source of energy to Drax but also help hard-pressed British farmers at this time?

My noble friend makes a good point. It is not just Drax; there are many commercial and domestic biomass boilers as well that I am sure would be happy to use sustainable British-produced biomass.

My Lords, when biomass subsidies were initially awarded, was it envisaged that the Drax power station would receive more than £2 million a day in biomass subsidies, emit about 12 million tonnes of CO2 a year, and, last year, take more than 40,000 tonnes of wood from old-growth forests in British Columbia—a practice, incidentally, which Drax previously decried in its own sustainability reports? If not, what criteria will the Minister’s department use when a decision is made about whether subsidies should be extended beyond 2027?

The noble Lord posed a number of different questions. First, as I said, sustainability criteria are extremely strict. They are policed by Ofgem. I have spoken to the chief executive of Ofgem about this—it is investigating the allegations. It is Ofgem’s job to uphold the rules and it will not hesitate to take action if the rules are breached. We have some strict sustainability criteria, and it is important that Drax and every other producer abides by those rules. Drax is responsible for about 5% of the UK’s electricity generation, and noble Lords should be aware that this is important for keeping the lights on, and for British energy security.

I agree that there is biomass and biomass, but in this case trees are being cut down to provide wooden frames to replace steel frames in construction, and are therefore contributing to carbon reduction. I understand that the residue of that cutting down—the sawdust and so on—makes up the pellets that we are talking about now for Drax. Should that other side not be borne in mind, together with my noble friend’s view that it is a very complex matter? Just going for the obvious target often leads to the wrong, opposite results?

My noble friend is right. It is a complicated subject and should not be the subject of easy sloganeering or campaigning. A number of different issues are involved. What the primary wood is used for is, of course, a matter for the US authorities and for the Canadians.

My Lords, yesterday at Oral Questions, the Minister— the noble Lord, Lord Benyon—said:

“Biomass is a perfectly legitimate renewable energy source if the wood that is being used is a renewable and sustainable harvest”.—[Official Report, 12/3/24; col. 1897.]

My question is simple: can the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Callanan—confirm exactly what steps the UK is taking to verify beyond doubt that no old-growth timber is being cut and burnt at Drax?

Of course I agree absolutely with the statement made by my noble friend. As I said, I have spoken to Ofgem, which is investigating. It is its job to enforce against these criteria. My officials are in touch with those in British Columbia for further discussions. However, there are many perfectly legitimate reasons why timber would be removed from old-growth forests—for instance, for firebreaks, diseased wood, et cetera. This is a complicated issue. Drax is an important part of the UK’s energy security. Let us make sure that it does this sustainably and abides by the rules before we rush to judgment.

Has the Minister actually studied the detailed and evidenced findings of the last few weeks from “Panorama”, confirmed by the Government of British Columbia, that Drax is, in fact, burning wood from old-growth primary forests—rich, diverse habitats that are over 150 years old and will take 80 years or far longer to grow back—and that it is doing so in defiance of its 2017 commitment? Against wind, solar, hydro and nuclear, is not the case for biomass as a source of renewable power fatally weak and wholly unconvincing?

As the noble Lord knows—we have been in correspondence on this—I do not agree with him. As I said, we are in discussions with the British Columbia authority. This is not a third-world country; it is perfectly capable of sustainably managing its forests in its own way. There are internationally agreed strict sustainability criteria. It is important that Drax follows those rules. Ofgem is studying its application and will not hesitate to take action against it, as I have said.

My Lords, I think we are missing a point with some of these answers. The fact is that this is taxpayers’ money going on a business scam. Why can the Government not see that?

I do not agree with the noble Baroness—I often do not agree with her. This is not a business scam. It is actually bill payers’ money, not taxpayers’ money, but we spend it on a number of different sources, including those mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Birt. It is not an either/or equation; we need a variety of different sources of fuel for our electricity and our energy uses. If the energy crisis taught us anything, it is the importance of not relying on one particular source. Yes, we need wind, solar, biomass, nuclear and some gas-fired generation in the short term. We need a resilient energy mix across all the different sources.

My Lords, on the general subject of renewable energy, in the announcement yesterday of two new gas-fired power stations, an announcement was also made that there were times when renewable energy was not available to generate power. Does my noble friend agree that this simply is not true? Tidal power is constantly available.

The noble Lord has asked me about this a number of times. As I have said to him, we are supportive of tidal power and are allocating funds to its development through the various CfD auctions. But I think he will recognise that it is not yet available at scale and in the quantities we would need. We are very proud of our renewable resources: almost 50% of our electricity production is now from renewables; we have the five biggest wind farms in the world; we are easily the biggest producer in Europe; and we are seeing lots of applications for solar development. Renewables are great, but it remains the case that they are not available all the time; we need more storage and back-up, and need other sources as well.

At the risk of upsetting a few colleagues, I ask: is the Minister aware that some of the forests in Canada and America were originally planted for paper? The paper mills closed because paper was not wanted; towns were decimated because they were one-product towns for the paper mills. Drax came along and saved some of those towns in the early days.

I do not know the truth or not of that; I will take the noble Lord’s word for it. As I said, these are complicated matters involving a number of different factors.

My Lords, the renewable credentials of biomass are dependent on the trees cut down being replaced by trees that survive and live to full growth. Sure enough, the tragic disease and deer predation of our English forestry means that biomass is not a net-zero source of energy.

I do not quite understand the point the noble Earl is making. There are many sustainable forests across Europe and North America, where, as he says, there are different degrees of growth. Trees are cut down, and new ones are planted. For instance, in many of the forests in Scandinavia, more trees are planted than harvested, so it is a “sustainable plus” resource. We should be careful not to dictate to the North Americans —to the Canadians—how they manage their own forest resources. They are fully developed countries; they have environmental movements, as we do in this country; and they ensure that all their production is sustainable. As I said, we are in discussions with the Government of British Columbia, who are quite capable of managing these resources for themselves without being lectured to by us.