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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 May, 2004, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
UK 'lagging on biomass potential'
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Chickens in straw   AP
Chicken litter is ideal biomass
The UK government is neglecting the way biomass could help in tackling climate change, the government's advisers say.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution says farm and forestry waste, specially-grown crops and urban plant trimmings could provide heat and power.

The RCEP says what is necessary is to replace "fractured and misdirected" government policy on burning biomass.

It says the example of several other European countries shows quite clearly what the UK itself could well achieve.

The commission publishes detailed reports on what it regards as the crucial environmental issues facing the UK and the world. This report, Biomass As A Renewable Energy Source, is its second special report.

The RCEP chairman is Professor Sir Tom Blundell, head of the department of biochemistry at the University of Cambridge. Speaking at the report's launch, he said: "I am disappointed that energy from biomass has not developed as quickly in the UK as elsewhere in Europe.

"It could make a vital contribution to the UK's targets for combating climate change, but is failing to develop under fractured and misdirected government policies."

When the study began in August 2003 Sir Tom said: "The UK is being left behind. If the government is to reach its stated targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases, it is imperative that sources of renewable energy are fully researched and given the necessary support by the government."

He said the use of biomass would also provide new opportunities for UK farming and forestry, and would improve the security of the country's energy supply.

The commission says biomass differs in two important ways from other forms of renewable energy: it is controllable, unlike for example wind and wave power, and it can provide heat at the same time as it generates electricity.

Biomass takes several forms: forestry by-products, agricultural waste like straw and chicken litter, and fast-growing (short rotation coppice) energy crops such as willow. Poplar and miscanthus (elephant grass) can also be burnt.

Boosting green heat

There are also "municipal arisings" - plant waste collected from parks, gardens, roadsides and rail lines.

All are available in the UK, and there is also an international trade in pellets of sawdust.

The RCEP report calls for:

  • a renewable heat obligation, which would require current heat suppliers (of gas, oil and electricity) to supply a given proportion of their heat from renewable sources by a set date
  • the formation of a government/industry biomass forum
  • biomass-fired combined heat and power (CHP) schemes in all new-build projects.
The commission believes biomass could provide 10-15% of the UK's energy by 2050, by when, it said in a report in 2000, the country should be aiming to have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 60% below present levels.

It believes the reason why biomass has not taken off in the UK as in some other countries is simple.

'Opportunities lost'

The report says: "The government's capital grants schemes for biomass initiatives have focussed on high-technology approaches to electricity-only generation with a view to potential export development...

"The failure to recognise heat utilisation as an important way of delivering high-efficiency energy means that opportunities have been lost."

Using biomass to produce both heat and power, it says, can raise the efficiency of the process from typically 30% to 80%.

The commission also says grant schemes are too complex and lack co-ordination, and there is no national clearing-house to share information on biomass.

The BBC's Tom Heap
"According to the report, the government has failed to promote the fuel"

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