Hypocrisy of the UK Government on Bioenergy

UK policymakers have spent billions in British taxpayer resources subsidizing coal plants to convert to burning biomass—a fancy word for wood—primarily in the form of imported wood pellets. But the UK government is again showing signs that it is conflicted over its massive bioenergy subsidy program.

This week, the UK’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) issued new rule changes to the UK’s “Contracts for Difference” subsidy scheme for combined heat and power (CHP) plants that burn wood, stipulating that they should be at least 70% efficient (instead of the current 35%). This change would rule out future projects akin to the world’s largest dedicated biomass power plant currently being built on Teesside by MGT Power. In its consultation on proposed amendments to the scheme, BEIS stated that, “increasing the overall efficiency of schemes could help make best use of biomass resources,” and that, “driving efficiency improvements in this technology will also result in reduced emissions and cost savings for consumers over time.”

The Department’s own impact assessment for the proposed change stated further that, “The objective of this policy is to encourage the deployment of the best available CHP technologies and best application of renewable CHP by ensuring that subsidy is directed only towards schemes which deliver high levels of overall efficiency and make best use of biomass resources.”

So far, so applaudable.

However, in the context of ongoing EU negotiations on the Renewable Energy Directive, the UK government has been playing a very different game. Leaked documents show that the UK, together with Poland and Spain, lobbied against measures that would have set minimum efficiency requirements for power plants burning biomass, as part of Europe’s new renewable energy goals.

Unfortunately for the climate and forests, those lobbying efforts were successful. The European Council opposed a requirement for biomass plants to co-generate heat and power, and even opposed attempts to limit support for electricity-only plants under a certain efficiency threshold.

This means that over the last six months, the UK has, on the one hand, used eleventh-hour backroom negotiations in Brussels to lobby other EU member states on the need to water down rules on the efficiency of biomass plants, and on the other hand, the UK’s public consultation documents, and its domestic policy decision this week, state the exact opposite.

Quite the contradiction.

It’s time for the UK to come clean on its bioenergy policy and immediately phase out existing subsidies for inefficient electricity-only plants that burn forest biomass like Drax Power, and support an equivalent policy at the European level.

About the Authors

Sasha Stashwick

Senior Advocate, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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