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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 April 2006, 15:02 GMT 16:02 UK
Ministers bullish on biomass fuel
By Mark Kinver
BBC News science and nature reporter

Barley (Image: National Non-Food Crops Centre)

The UK government says energy from crops, trees and waste can play a key role in meeting targets on renewable power and cutting CO2 emissions.

Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks believes the sector is vital if the goal of renewable power providing 20% of UK electricity by 2020 is to be achieved.

Only about 1% of UK electricity currently comes from biomass sources.

Mr Wicks, speaking at the launch of the biomass action plan, says a full review will be published in the next year.

"I may be neutral on nuclear power but I am not renewables neutral," the minister told reporters at a briefing in central London.

Setting targets

However, Mr Wicks, who is leading the government's energy review, said it would not be useful at this stage to set any targets for the fuel.

He said it was likely that established technologies, such as onshore wind, would be the main players in meeting the 2003 Energy White Paper commitment of 10% of UK electricity coming from renewables by 2010.

Beyond that, he said there was a range of other technologies - including tidal, wave, solar and biomass - that could play a part in helping reach the 2020 goal of 20% of electricity from renewable sources.

"I think our challenge at the moment is to provide a framework where we can enable these technologies to develop - but I am optimistic about biomass," Mr Wicks said.

Graphic showing carbon cycle
The scientific principle behind biomass is the carbon cycle
As they grow plants absorb carbon dioxide (C02)
The carbon (C) builds tissues and feeds the plant while the oxygen (02) is released
When plant material is burnt the carbon re-combines with oxygen
The resulting carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere
The contribution of biomass to the greenhouse effect is therefore far less than for traditional fossil fuels

The action plan is the government's formal response to recommendations made by the Biomass Task Force, headed by former National Farmers' Union president, Sir Ben Gill.

The task force, in its report published last October, challenged the government to introduce measures that unlocked the "vast potential" of the fuel.

Farming Minister Lord Bach said the UK was well placed to develop a competitive market in energy crops, and the farming community was keen to embrace new opportunities.

"It can provide jobs and important new opportunities for farmers and others in the countryside," he told reporters.

"There is enormous potential in biomass to generate renewable energy, to help the environment and to provide another possible market for our farmers."

Lord Bach said the government was offering financial support to farmers who chose to grow short-rotation coppice, like willow, to help them make ends meet while the crops grew.

Up to 15m is also being made available to help energy suppliers cover the costs of building and operating biomass boilers, with the promise of more money in 2007.

Another initiative is the formation of a Biomass Energy Centre, run by the Forestry Commission, that will offer help and advice to people who wanted more information.

Syed Ahmed, head of research at the Combined Heat and Power Association (CHPA), said the action plan failed to address a number of concerns.

"The report does include some some useful initiatives, but does not really respond to the spirit of the Biomass Task Force's vision.

"The potential for decentralised, biomass-fuelled heat and power networks is huge, and their use will contribute significantly to many of the government's energy policy goals," Mr Ahmed added.

He felt the measures did not go far enough: "The Government's action on biomass remains modest and will not create the step-change needed to kick-start a new and vital industry."

Planning problems

Mr Wicks admitted that the problem of local opposition to the construction of large-scale power plants had to be tackled.

Local councillors in north Devon recently rejected plans to build a 23MW biomass power station after residents complained it was too big.

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"What I would say is that the UK is going to need a huge, and I mean huge, amount of investment in its energy infrastructure in the coming five to 15 years," Mr Wicks said.

"We can't have a situation out there where people simply say 'no, no, no' all the time to different planning proposals."

The issue of whether planning guidelines need to be amended is one of the subjects being considered in the energy review, which is set to be published in July.

The action plan primarily focuses on England, but the devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be involved in the UK-wide biomass strategy that will be published in the next 12 months.

Graphic showing a biomass process
One possible use of biomass fuel is in power plants using a process such as the one shown above, the Combined Cycle
The fuel is turned into hot pressurised combustion gases, which are cleaned to prevent corrosion of the system
The clean gases are then burned with air before entering a turbine, generating electricity
Heat from the gases is recovered after the gas turbine using water in the heat exchanger
The combustion gases can then usually be vented from a stack without further cleaning
The only other by-product is non-toxic ash, which could, for example, be mixed with compost to help grow more biomass fuel

Biomass energy report criticised
25 Oct 05 |  Science/Nature
Renewable energy in the home
02 Sep 04 |  Business
UK 'lagging on biomass potential'
11 May 04 |  Science/Nature
'Grow trees to drive cars'
24 Jan 03 |  Science/Nature

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