Government should stop burning cash on biomass plants and waste incinerators

Business Green

Published: 23rd February 2018

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Last year London mayor, Sadiq Khan called for a ban on wood-burning stoves in parts of the capital in a bid to tackle air pollution. The call was based on an assumption that between a quarter and a third of all London’s fine-particle pollution comes from domestic wood burning. That may be the case, but the Stove Industry Alliance estimates that the biggest culprit is open fires, which account for around 70 per cent of the wood burnt in London and are actually illegal in urban areas under the Clean Air Act. Another issue is fuel. Dry wood or wood pellets cause far less damage than damp wood. Nonetheless, it is right to question whether burning solid fuels is sustainable and whether businesses selling log-burners can ever be considered green businesses.

Last week I had an opportunity to visit Hunter Stoves, an Exeter-based company that has grown from a few committed individuals to a business with 55 staff and a state-of-the-art research and manufacturing site in Camelford, Cornwall. They are currently working with Exeter University to develop a low or zero emissions stove, building on a successful model developed by the Danish Technological Institute. The innovation is a dual chamber system. The upper chamber functions as an ordinary combustion chamber, but once the stove reaches a certain temperature, an automatic device kicks in and turns the smoke downwards creating a ‘secondary burn’ of harmful gases and pollutants. This invention has been granted a licence for sale in New Zealand, one of the world’s most tightly regulated countries when it comes to emissions from solid fuel stoves.

So, a combination of enforcement around open fires and innovative log-burners may allow us to keep the home fires burning, even in cities. Good news for the London mayor who is rightly concerned about air quality in our cities. Perhaps he can now turn his attention to what is definitely not a green business, that of burning wood and waste to generate electricity.

The UK burns far more wood every year than its annual wood production, and imports more wood pellets than any other country in the world. Studies show that electricity generated from burning trees cut down for that purpose can be as damaging to the climate as burning coal when considered over a period of several decades.

As for waste incineration capacity, the Eunomia’s 2017 Residual Waste Infrastructure Review predicts the UK’s supply of incinerators will exceed the available quantity of residual waste by 2020/21. If all incinerators operated at full capacity, they would undermine the UK’s recycling industry, preventing it from recycling more than 63 per cent of waste.

In the EU, in the still-to-be-finalised Renewable Energy Directive II report, there are gaping loopholes for wood pellet burning; loopholes the UK government at Council level is making no moves to plug. Indeed, leaked documents show the UK has lobbied against measures that would have placed limits on power plants burning biomass, as part of Europe’s new renewable energy goals. At least the EU has agreed to a 35 per cent target on renewables by 2030, which should incentivise investments in truly low-carbon renewables.

Back in the UK, the government is currently consulting on renewable energy subsidies for new biomass power plants and for types of waste incinerators. However, there is no suggestion of stopping subsidies altogether. Instead, the government is consulting on proposals which would end support for new ‘inefficient’ biomass power plants which might make it more difficult for new import-reliant biomass plants to attract subsidies. But the message the government really needs to hear is that renewable electricity subsidies should go exclusively to genuinely low-carbon sources such as wind, solar and tidal power, not go up in smoke.