Money to Burn II: Solar and Wind Can Reliably Supply the United Kingdom’s New Electricity Needs More Cost-Effectively Than Biomass

Issue Brief
September 13, 2017

Today, a reliable, coal-free electricity grid dominated by truly clean wind and solar energy is not only possible in the United Kingdom, but is the smart economic choice. Unfortunately, the U.K. government has continued to rely heavily on biomass energy to meet its climate and renewables targets, primarily through the conversion of coal plants to burn biomass—plant matter used for energy. These converted coal plants rely on 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 other renewables like 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.

A new study commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council and conducted by Vivid Economics concludes that solar and wind can reliably meet the United Kingdom’s needs for new electricity capacity—and they can do so more cost-effectively than new biomass, even when the costs of integrating solar and wind into the grid are fully accounted for. The study shows that:

  • By 2020, biomass will be higher cost than onshore wind and solar from a total economic cost perspective.
  • In 2025, in all cases, biomass will be higher cost than all forms of wind and solar.
  • If new biomass conversions were to be constructed, they would be stranded assets—meaning uneconomic to run for any purpose—within the decade.
  • Continuing to subsidise coal-to-biomass conversion could result in hundreds of millions of pounds in excess subsidy expenditures for the United Kingdom compared to wind energy.

U.K. policymakers must follow the science on biomass carbon emissions and acknowledge the emerging economic realities to immediately ramp down subsidies for dirty and costly biomass electricity and shift investments to the truly clean, reliable, and cost-effective energy solutions the country needs.