Reality Check: Biomass Is Costlier than Solar and Wind and Unnecessary for a Reliable U.K. Electricity Supply

Issue Brief
June 15, 2018

Today, a coal-free electricity grid dominated by truly clean wind and solar energy—and that reliably powers the United Kingdom year-round, even under the most challenging conditions—is not only possible, but is the smart economic choice. Unfortunately, the U.K. government has continued to rely heavily on so-called “biomass energy” to meet its climate and renewables targets, primarily through the conversion of coal plants to burn wood. These converted coal plants import millions of tonnes of imported wood pellets from the Southeastern United States and elsewhere for fuel, and receive billions in taxpayer subsidies based on the erroneous assumption that biomass is a zero-carbon source of electricity, on par with solar and wind. In reality, burning biomass for electricity not only undermines the United Kingdom’s climate change goals, it does so at huge taxpayer expense while diverting resources from cleaner and smarter investments.

In the 2017 report Money to Burn II, economic modelling of the U.K. power system demonstrated that solar and wind can reliably supply the United Kingdom’s new electricity needs as it phases out coal more cost effectively than biomass conversions. Now, new modeling shows that not only are new coal-to-biomass conversions unnecessary to ensure the reliability of the U.K. electricity system, but so are coal-to-biomass conversions currently in operation.

The new study commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council and conducted by Vivid Economics and Imperial College debunks an industry-led argument in the United Kingdom that biomass is necessary to ensure the reliability of the U.K. electricity supply. The study shows that:

  • Biomass is not needed to ensure the reliability of a smart, low-carbon electricity system. The United Kingdom can decarbonize emissions from its electricity system by 2030 relying almost entirely on new investments in wind, solar, and smart resources such as battery storage, demand response, and interconnection with Europe. This is achievable without expensive and controversial biomass, new nuclear, or carbon capture and storage (CCS). 
  • Wind and solar can provide more than 60 percent of total electricity by 2030, with already planned or existing nuclear and natural gas capacity providing the remainder. The analysis only considers technologies that are in operation or close to market in the United Kingdom. Technological innovation could further ease the challenge of decarbonizing the U.K. electricity system while maintaining year-round system reliability beyond 2030.
  • Delivering the new investment in generation capacity and smart resources needed to realize the electricity mix modelled in this study is both technically and economically low-risk. However, this will require further U.K. government action to create a supportive policy environment.

A first step in a strong enabling environment would be an immediate end to Drax’s biomass subsidies, which could save British taxpayers £729 million per year between now and 2027, when subsidies are scheduled to expire.

U.K. policymakers must follow the science on biomass carbon emissions and acknowledge the emerging economic realities. Large-scale biomass electricity is dirty, uncompetitive, and unnecessary. Wind, solar, and the smart resources needed to complement them in a decarbonized, 21st century electricity system are now low-cost technologies and can reliably power the United Kingdom in 2030. The U.K. government should focus on delivering these resources, not continuing to subsidize Drax and other biomass companies.