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Playing With Fire

An assessment of company plans to burn biomass in EU coal power stations
Supported by EU legislation, biomass (mostly wood in the form of pellets or chips) is increasingly used as a fuel to generate electricity, including in a number of large former coal power plants.

This practice continues despite scientific consensus that burning biomass instead of coal in power stations risks accelerating climate change.

This report assesses the possible growth in biomass burning across Europe as a result of a fleet of planned coal-to-biomass power plant conversions. We map every project and estimate the scale of the threat to global forests.

Please scroll down to reveiw the key findings and explore the data – or download the full report by clicking on the thumbnail to the right.

It is of considerable concern that scientific analyses indicate that, far from reducing GHG emissions, replacing coal with biomass for electricity generation is likely to initially increase emissions of CO2 per kWh.

[..] Research has shown that the time needed to reabsorb the extra carbon released can be very long, so that current policies risk achieving the reverse of that intended—initially exacerbating rather than mitigating climate change.

European Academies' Science Advisory Council (EASAC) - 2019

Key Findings

  • Proposed EU coal-to-biomass projects could increase biomass consumption by 607 petajoules (PJ) p/a. This is equivalent to five new Drax power stations.
  • As a result, biomass burnt in current and former coal power plants could triple vs. current levels.
  • 36 million tonnes (MT) of wood pellets would be needed, similar to current global wood pellet production.
  • Approximately 2,700km2 of forest would need to be cut down every year to feed this demand – equivalent to most of the forest in the Netherlands or half of the Black Forest in Germany.
  • These projects would produce just 64 TWh of electricity, less than 2% of the EU’s electricity production. In comparison, every year Europe adds an equivalent amount of new wind and solar capacity.

Policy Recommendations

  1. Governments should focus policy support on renewable energy sources which deliver near immediate carbon and cost savings vs. fossil fuels – such as wind and solar – rather than on biomass, which delivers questionable carbon savings, perhaps not realised for many decades (if at all), at a cost much higher than that of fossil fuels.
  2. The true effect of biomass burning on the climate must be understood. Governments must assess the net effects of switching from coal to biomass with an integrated approach: carbon flows along the complete life cycle (including combustion emissions) in the bioenergy scenario should be compared with carbon flows in the absence of increased harvesting for bioenergy (a reference or counterfactual scenario). Such analyses should include reduction in the carbon stock and foregone sequestration from biomass harvested.
  3. As recommended by the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC), a coal-to-biomass project should not be regarded as a renewable energy source unless the operators can demonstrate that the project will lead to a net reduction in atmospheric carbon levels within a decade. Projects that fail to meet this threshold should be subject to a carbon price and not be eligible for any subsidies.

Published 16th December 2019