Bioenergy: the backbone of the renewables revolution

WHA board member blog by James Court, REA Head of Policy & External Affairs

WHA board member blog by James Court, REA Head of Policy & External Affairs

There is no doubt about it, bioenergy is the ugly duckling of the low carbon gang, not as gleaming as solar, nor as symbolic as the wind turbine.

Nuclear is still the famous, but divisive bad boy of the group, the love it or hate it marmite option, with hydrogen the prince across the water, full of promise.

None of them are perfect; they all have pros and cons, with devotees and detractors vociferously making their case. Bioenergy is no different. Similar to nuclear in the way that it splits the ‘green community’, but unlike nuclear, it is not as well known by the wider general public, although it does have support, 69% according to public attitude trackers, which is above nuclear (35%), but below solar (84%).

Bioenergy is certainly more complex than other technologies, it requires more understanding than solar and wind and the details can’t be easily fitted into a tweet. “When done well bioenergy is good, when done badly it isn’t” doesn’t quite capture the nuance needed, nor would it easily convince someone faced with the barrage of negativity biomass and biofuels gets thrown at them. “Dirtier than coal” is an excellent strap line, even if the science and thinking behind it has been proved to be deeply flawed.

The sustainability of biofuels is of course a crucial issue, and one that the industry in the UK takes more seriously than anyone. The tracking standards, supply chain and providence are scrutinised more than any other technology. However, the industry is forced to talk defensively rather than of its achievements to date, and more importantly, its future potential.

In the UK, biotechnologies are the biggest renewable contributor across power, heat and transport. Nearly 10% of electricity comes from biomass, 6% of transport comes from biofuels, and 4% of heating also comes from biomass.

Without bioenergy the UK would have no chance of meeting its 2020 targets, and would be struggling to ever meet the next two carbon budgets, let alone the more challenging budgets after 2027.

Globally, 14% of the 18% of renewable energy comes from biofuels. These are phenomenal achievements that should be celebrated, yet in the UK you would be hard pressed to find MPs or journalists shouting from the rooftops about them.

Back in 2012, the time of the last government Bioenergy Strategy, it was estimated that excluding biomass from the energy mix would significantly increase the cost of decarbonising our energy system by £44 billion and would be a significant contributor to 2050 targets. Since then, the energy market is almost unrecognisable, with 30% of electricity now renewable. We are seeing coal free days with increasing regularity, costs of solar and onshore wind have dropped quicker than even the most optimistic supporter could have hoped, and are now competitive, if not cheaper, than building new gas stations. Even offshore wind has seen spectacular decreases in cost, and is now cheaper than the significant milestone of Hinkley nuclear station.

The public have jumped on solar, smashing the 2GW expectation of DECC in 2010, with around 13GW now installed, and over a million solar rooftops now in the UK.

Understandably, there is huge excitement about this, with a genuine belief that the once daunting climate targets can be achieved. This is hugely satisfying, and whilst the wider industry needs to do better in spreading this phenomenal news so that more people know that renewables are now mainstream and affordable, we can’t do it with wind and solar alone. Energy storage is coming online, but is mostly not designed for longer duration periods, and the grid will still need dispatchable power for a long time to come.

The same is true in transport. The dizzying spread of awareness and policy support for electric vehicles in the past two years is remarkable. From being a footnote in government documents, to a commitment from the Prime Minister to ban new fossil fuelled cars by 2040. Some governments have gone further, and the Norwegian commitment to have all internal flights go electric by 2040 is truly breath-taking, and hard to believe even as a green campaigner. However, whilst the politicians have gone from scepticism towards EVs, into believing it is the silver bullet, a dose of realism needs to be introduced.

Biofuels contribute much now, but importantly still have a hugely significant part to play in the transition away from fossils that will take place in the coming decades. Not just in cars, which will obviously see a continuing growth in EVs and hybrids, but in the long term future of heavy freight, shipping and even with the Norway target, aviation.

The last government Bioenergy Strategy was written in 2012, and whilst it had solid proposals and vision for the sector, the world has moved on hugely from even six years ago. The industry needs to kick start itself, starting with an industry led new bioenergy strategy which will detail the possibilities of the technology and what part it could play in meeting the 2030 and 2050 targets.

Bioenergy can provide jobs, ensure secure and low-carbon energy and would support other renewables technologies in the robust energy mix the UK needs, but needs support and vision, something the REA hopes to be a driving force for.

This blog is an excerpt from the influential Renewable Energy View 2018 (REview 2018) report released in June; the full study reflecting the performance of the renewable energy sector over the past year can be read here.