Thursday, February 29, 2024

UK fails to prove sustainability of biomass power plants, a lesson for Africa

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The UK’s National Audit Office’s recent concerns about the monitoring of biomass power plants offer critical lessons for African nations striving to embrace sustainable energy solutions. These lessons emphasize the necessity of robust monitoring, assessment of supply chain sustainability, regular evaluation of policy effectiveness, transparency, and accountability in the biomass sector. African governments must also strike a balance between economic support and sustainability goals, explore local biomass resources, engage stakeholders, invest in research and development, consider long-term impacts, and collaborate on international standards. By applying these lessons, African nations can navigate the path to a sustainable energy future while mitigating potential environmental and economic risks associated with biomass energy. 

  A call for a comprehensive review of the carbon footprint monitoring of biomass power plants in the UK has implications for African nations seeking sustainable energy solutions. The National Audit Office (NAO) has asserted that the UK government’s current monitoring arrangements for biomass power plants fall short, making it unable to demonstrate their sustainability effectively. 

Presently, the UK government relies on certified data provided by biomass power plant operators regarding the sustainability of their supply chains. However, the government has failed to assess the reliability and accuracy of this information. In 2022, biomass power plants contributed about 11% of the UK’s electricity supply, with Drax, a prominent FTSE 250 company, operating the largest among several such facilities. The UK government has heavily subsidized the biomass industry, committing approximately £16.1 billion between 2002 and 2023 to support these power plants in its efforts to reduce the country’s carbon emissions. 

Currently, the government is evaluating whether to extend taxpayer support for Drax beyond 2027. This support was initially provided to facilitate the conversion of Drax’s North Yorkshire facility from coal to biomass over the past decade. Dame Meg Hillier, Chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, emphasized the importance of ensuring genuine sustainability in biomass operations, stating, “Biomass could have a key role in achieving net zero, but only if it is genuinely sustainable.” She further highlighted that the government’s current arrangements do not inspire confidence in this regard and urged an urgent review to ascertain whether billions of pounds in customer and taxpayer-funded support align with the UK’s climate objectives. 

Biomass power generation involves the release of carbon dioxide when burning organic materials, but it can be considered low carbon because the trees or plants used in biomass production sequester carbon during their growth. However, the NAO pointed out that if biomass is not sourced sustainably, it could potentially have a larger carbon footprint than burning fossil fuels. Much of the biomass used in the UK, including by Drax, is imported, primarily from the United States, which complicates tracking the sector’s complete carbon footprint. 

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Although biomass power plants in the UK are required to submit regular sustainability reports on their supply chains to Ofgem, the country’s energy regulator, the NAO expressed concerns about the lack of evaluation of the effectiveness of these arrangements, particularly considering the complexity of long supply chains. While stricter reporting requirements may pose challenges for biomass operators, experts believe that enhanced monitoring could enhance the industry’s credibility. Adam Forsyth, Head of Research at Longspur Capital, pointed out that better monitoring could contribute to building trust in the sector. 

For African governments exploring biomass as a sustainable energy source, the UK’s experience underscores the importance of robust monitoring and assurance mechanisms. Ensuring the sustainability of biomass operations is not only crucial for environmental goals but also for the efficient allocation of public funds. 

In response to the NAO report, the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero affirmed its commitment to sustainability criteria aligned with international standards. It welcomed the report and indicated plans to consult on further measures to enhance the biomass sector’s role in a secure and clean energy sector. 

As African nations seek to develop their biomass energy sectors, they can draw lessons from the UK’s experience, emphasizing the importance of rigorous monitoring and evaluation to ensure the genuine sustainability of biomass power plants. This approach can contribute to both environmental goals and the efficient allocation of resources. 

  

 

Dr. Edward Mungai
Dr. Edward Mungaihttp://www.edwardmungai.com/
The writer, Dr. Edward Mungai, is a global sustainability expert. He is the Lead Consultant and Partner at Impact Africa Consulting Ltd (IACL), a leading sustainability and strategy advisory in Africa. He is also the Chief Editor at Africa Sustainability Matters. He can be contacted via mailto:edward@edwardmungai.com

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