The Paris talks on climate change produced an agreement to keep global temperature rise to less than two degrees Celsius. Current predictions are for a rise of about five degrees Celsius.
Early in the New Year a decision will be made on whether to give planning permission for the biggest straw-burning incinerator in the world to be built in Norwich. It will be called Generation Park.
In reality biomass is not carbon neutral
The developers say that burning straw will be carbon neutral because of sequestration i.e. the same amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere from burning straw will be absorbed by growing next year’s crop. In reality biomass is not carbon neutral, no fuel or energy source is. Planting, harvesting, processing and transport are all CO2 generating, in addition to the emissions from the chimney when biomass is burnt.
By burning straw, the Generation Park biomass incinerator will create carbon emissions at a higher level than fossil fuels. Only ‘clean’ renewables like wind, wave and solar approach carbon neutrality. Straw is described as the worst type of biomass fuel based on the UK government’s methodology for accounting for biomass emissions of greenhouse gases. Straw can give out up to 575kg of CO2 per MWh of delivered energy compared to good practice which is 350kg of CO2 per MWh. Even when compared to other types of biomass, straw has particularly high CO2 emissions because it is so bulky and transporting it uses a disproportionate amount of fuel.
Emissions from transporting straw to the pelletizing plants at Ely and Selby have to be factored in – the empty lorry back to Norwich and then diesel locomotives to bring the pellets back to the plant. This incorporates over 100 miles in vehicle movements per load and the further the distance the less environmentally sound this kind of project is. A poor growing year will mean the need to import straw from Europe. With fuel usage growing as the distance and diversity of suppliers increases, so does the CO2. The straw pelleting will generate carbon emissions too, as the plant in Ely will rely on the National Grid for its power.
With fuel usage growing as the distance and
diversity of suppliers increases, so does the CO2.
The only mitigations offered by the developers of Generation Park to this increased carbon footprint is an ambition at some time in the future, after the incinerator is built, to install a widespread local heating network. Based on past experience of similar schemes that have been planned around the UK, this will either never be built (due to the prohibitive infrastructure costs) or it will be so restricted and inefficient as to make virtually no difference to the carbon costs of the scheme.
Examples cited from overseas for this type of heating network are misleading. For example, Clive Lewis (MP for Norwich South) compares the development to the combined heat and power plant at Malmo in Sweden (visible on the opening credits of the thriller series ‘The Bridge’ on BBC4). But Clive has missed a couple of key differences; the Malmo plant runs on natural gas, and the infrastructure for the district heating network was built in the 1950s when the plant ran on coal. That’s a pretty fundamental misconception for a shadow energy spokesman to hold.
It is hard to see the city bankers behind Generation Park coming up with the funds to lay piping to every house in Norwich. There are reports of them already getting cold feet due to the government’s change of tack on subsidies for renewables.
Burning straw for electricity will generate carbon at a rate at least 350% higher than the targeted level for the UK in 2030. It evidently is not low carbon and using it in Norwich will be contrary to the principles behind policy objectives of the local plan. At a time when world leaders in Paris have agreed to reduce CO2 emissions would it not be a strange decision for Norwich to commit itself for the next 30 years to a form of energy production that will actually increase our CO2 output?
Let’s hope the Norwich City Council planning committee ensures that Generation Park’s straw man goes up in smoke.