Biomass – the mistake we never learn from

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In November, 2015, a report was put in front of The Scottish Parliament’s infrastructure and capital investment committee showing a bioheat plant intended to help St Andrews university achieve carbon neutrality was at least as likely to increase emissions as it was to reduce them. Just over a year later, flanked by smiling primary school children, university principal Sally Mapstone ceremonially lit the completed biomass boiler – paid for with £10 million in public funds and a subsidised loan of £11 million.

For those unfamiliar with bioenergy, this investment may appear as an exceptional act of folly. Others with experience of this means of climate change mitigation will be less surprised, given the same kind of questionable faith is put in biomass at the national scale – only with vastly greater sums at stake.

In December last year, the Government guaranteed Drax power station £100 per MWh for electricity from a new biomass unit – making its power more expensive than that from the notoriously pricey Hinkley Point C. In total, in 2015, £817million in public money was handed to energy companies to generate 9% of the UK’s electricity by burning solid biomass.

The money is being spent, as with the university’s bioheat plant, both in the belief that biomass helps mitigate emissions and in the face of criticism of this claim. A report last October by the Natural Resources Defence Council drew upon recent science when it stated that in many cases bioenergy produced more carbon emissions than using coal or natural gas. A paper by Chatham House in February this year went further, saying public subsidies for biomass should largely be withdrawn. The scepticism has even infected Government, with the now defunct DECC commissioning a report into whether biomass is worse than coal in terms of warming the planet.

The criticisms of the St Andrews plant and of biomass in general are essentially the same. The combustion part of the biomass lifecycle (as opposed to, say, processing or transport) is assumed by supporters to be carbon neutral as, since trees absorb carbon when they grow, forest growth will balance the carbon emitted by burning wood for energy. However, this assumption fails to take into account all the consequences of using biomass. For example without a demand for biomass, the wood may not have been burnt and therefore continued to sequester rather than emit carbon. Or it may have been used for another purpose, such as wood products, in which embodied carbon is not released into the atmosphere. In their consequential analysis of the St Andrews plant, the report authors identified thirteen scenarios which may unfold if the plant were set up. In seven of them the lifecycle emissions from producing the same amount of energy were greater from the bioheat plant than they were from the original gas boiler. Similarly, the Chatham house paper argued that mill residues and post-consumer waste are the only biomass feedstocks which lead to a genuine reduction of emissions.

Results of consequential lifecycle assessment of St Andrews bioheat plant (Bebbington et al, 2016). Available at: https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/media/estates/Guardbridge%20carbon%20accounting%20report.pdf

Unfortunately the idea that biomass is carbon neutral is enshrined in both policy and carbon accounting. Advocates of theSt Andrews project and Drax argue that, because of the source of their biomass, their bioenergy produces less emissions vis a vis fossil fuels even according a more rigorous consequential perspective. Because of the assumed neutrality of biomass, they’re not required to prove this however. In the case of St Andrews, the plant was greenlit on the basis of a corporate accounting methodology which does not require bioenergy emissions to be counted. Likewise, at the national level, biomass emissions are not included in inventories, making bioenergy an attractive way to hit emissions reductions targets.

It’s true that biomass emissions seem set to become more visible. Recent product lifecycle assessment guidance requires the explicit quantification of both biogenic emissions and removals, the IPCC plan a new technical note on the burning of imported biomass and the UK Government have developed a (purely advisory) model to assess biomass’s mitigation potential, including against “counterfactuals” in which it is not burnt. But even if bioenergy is pared back to genuinely carbon neutral processes, doubts remain.

Biomass burning can have a long carbon payback period whatever its ultimate net emissions are. In other words it may take a long time for the emissions at the point of combustion to be compensated for by new plant growth. As climate tipping points could be crossed in the short-term, increasing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere for even a few decades could be dangerous.

In their concluding remarks, the authors of the St Andrews analysis – which was commissioned to help decide whether to proceed with the scheme – offered three notes of caution. Firstly, they cited a 66-year-old work of political philosophy which argued that decisions should be based on an understanding of all the possible consequences. Secondly, they admitted the consequences of the plant were uncertain, but submitted that this uncertainty itself was a finding. Thirdly, they argued that if there is so much uncertainty surrounding biomass, why not plump for another technology which offered guaranteed emissions mitigation.

Sound advice which, as we have seen, went unheeded. Meanwhile, the UK has become the world’s largest importer of wood pellets, burning 42% of total global imports in 2015. Pleas for a rethink generally, it seems, are also set to be ignored.

Flatlining: the vital signs of carbon capture and storage

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If a flat line is indicative of a lifeless state, it is apt that this is how Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is represented in the Government’s latest projections for the technology. The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy’s 2016 forecast (released this March) shows no capacity added until well into the 2030s, leaving CCS plotting a horizontal course on the graph at the decidedly comatose 0GW.

UK Government projections for CCS. Source: Carbon Brief, 2017 (https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-dramatic-shift-uk-government-outlook-gas-clean-energy)

The process of capturing CO2 from combustion and permanently storing it appears indefinitely dormant after the Government withdrew £1billion set aside to fund large-scale CCS demonstration projects. The decision, made by the Treasury in 2015, had a “devastating” effect on the industry, scaring off investors and halting progress towards commercial deployment.

Beyond the UK, the picture is almost as moribund. In 2009, Barack Obama’s energy secretary said he hoped the US would have up to 10 coal-fired plants with carbon capture in 2016. As it happened there were none, only two this year and there are no others on the horizon. Worldwide there are only 16 commercial scale projects.

And this is despite CCS having no shortage of champions. In September last year, the Parliamentary Advisory Group on CCS produced a 67-page report entitled Lowest Cost Decarbonisation for the UK: The Critical Role of CCS. In April this year, the Public Accounts Committee lambasted the Government in another report for its failure to support CCS, claiming the position will cost taxpayers billions. Throughout, the Government’s statutory climate change advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change, has said the same thing: that the cost of meeting the UK target of an 80% greenhouse gas reduction by 2050 could almost double without CCS. This is because without it reductions are needed using more expensive measures, such as fully decarbonising surface transport and powering industrial processes with low-carbon electricity. No CCS also means no BECCS – the negative emissions technology which stores biofuel emissions and is seen as critical to global mitigation efforts. The IPCC even goes as far as saying that limiting warming to 2C may even be impossible without CCS.

There is still hope though, despite policy makers refusal to heed this advice. At an energy conference in Houston last month, altogether different CCS champions – the world’s largest oil, gas and coal companies – pledged to slash the costs of extracting CO2 from fossil fuel energy. And some of the world’s biggest oil companies plan to invest $1billion over the next 10 years to develop CCS technologies.

Unsurprisingly, the motive at work is largely self-interest. The fossil fuel industry hopes to achieve a Manhattan Project-style breakthrough in CCS technology to safeguard their business in the face of rising penalties on carbon and hardening public attitudes to dirty fuels, according to The Telegraph. The most desperate are those for whom the writing is already on the wall. In its response to the Government’s consultation on phasing out coal earlier this year, the UK coal lobbyist CoalIMP pleads over several hundred words that “a strong case still exists for new coal-fired CCS”.

Besides self-preservation, the fossil fuel industry likes CCS because it can use captured CO2 to extract more fuel. It is no accident that the world’s largest CCS project, Texas’s $1billion Petra Nova scheme which began operating in January, uses the CO2 for oil production, pumping it into the reservoir to push out more of the liquid.

Yet even support from mighty fossil fuel firms won’t be enough to create a thriving CCS industry. Oil firms may have pledged to invest $1billion in CCS but Shell’s capex budget for 2016 alone was $29billion. When you unpick the numbers it appears the hydrocarbon firms are not that concerned about having to curb emissions in a world with no carbon price and where energy demand is expected to increase by 30% by 2040.

It also doesn’t help that some prominent supporters of action on climate change are at best lukewarm about CCS. In his 2009 book Our Choice, former US vice president and mitigation advocate Al Gore, argued that overcoming the economic and technical challenges of deploying CCS at scale was little more than a pipe dream. Similarly, Bill McKibben, who leads anti-carbon campaign group 350.org, has said: “I’ve never met anyone who thinks [CCS] will actually play a serious part in dealing with our crisis.”

Judging by the spirit-level progress of CCS on the DBEIS graph, the “anyone” McKibben refers to includes UK policy makers. As Howard Herzog, CCS researcher at MIT, says, these are ultimately the people with the power to animate CCS through subsidies, enforced emission limits, a workable cap-and-trade scheme, or a carbon tax. The line confidently plateauing into the distance suggests two things: that policy makers know they possess the power of life over CCS, and that they have no plans to use it.

What would Brexit mean for efforts to tackle climate change?

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If, as according to superstition, wood provides reassurance when touched, then the Climate Change Act 2008 performs the same consoling function when it comes to Brexit and UK climate policy. “Leaving the EU would rob us of the chance to over come the challenge” of climate change, Ed Milliband said last week. Yet if he contemplates the solid legal fact of the Act he may, temporarily at least, find his fears subsiding. This is because the Act, regardless of EU membership status, commits the country to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. But however ambitious this seems, if he contemplates long enough, Ed’s pessimism will seem to him once more well-placed.

For a start, although the 2050 goal seems to lock Britain in long-term, in the global context of achieving net zero emissions some time before 2100, it leaves fifty years unaccounted for. As Charlotte Burns of the University of York points out, one justification for the stringent carbon budgets in the Act was that the UK would be required to meet them anyway under EU law. Out of the EU, and outside its obligations, it follows that carbon legislation for post-2050 may not be so tough. Then there’s the possibility we don’t adhere to the Act in the period to 2050. Even within the EU there are concerns about whether we will meet our carbon budgets. Out of the EU this lack of commitment could transform into something much worse: a watering down of the Act or even, as UKIP and some Tories advocate, repeal.

renewables graphIt’s worth remembering too that the UK’s climate change mitigation efforts aren’t just determined by our own Act: renewables targets are set by European directive. Under the Renewables Directive, 15% of all energy consumed in the UK must come from renewable sources by 2020 – and another policy commits the the EU as a whole to meeting 27% of final energy consumption through renewables by 2030. Although support for renewables is implicit in the Climate Change Act, EU legislation makes it explicit and clearly signposts the direction of travel for the industry. Without it, Britain’s green industry would have only the mixed messages of the UK government, investor confidence would be further undermined and a question mark placed and over its future.

The position of renewables could also suffer because of Brexit’s implications for energy security. Decreased interconnectivity of supply, reduced harmonisation of energy markets and less investment in the UK by multinational companies could all be consequences of leaving according to a House of Commons briefing paper. The resulting increase in energy insecurity would “increase focus on all aspects of UK generation” it is thought. In other words it may become more important to generate enough electricity by whatever means – including via gas and coal – than to meet renewables goals.

Brexit also means participation in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme would no longer be compulsory. The 1,000 or so UK installations which currently take part could in theory continue to do so under a new voluntary agreement, but it is equally possible they will simply exploit a new freedom to emit once outside the cap and trade scheme.

Beyond all this, of course, is the fact that global warming is (no surprises here) a global problem. It’s important for the UK, as the 15th largest emitter, to cut emissions, but we also need other countries to do the same. In the past Britain has challenged the EU to up the emission-cuts ante, pushing back the horizon of ambition. Outside the EU there is little chance of this or indeed of exerting any influence on the rest of the continent’s mitigation policy. Yes the UNFCCC offers a framework for the UK to influence global climate goals, but given the number of competing voices and the power of some of the players, it is unlikely a lone actor would wield much, if any, influence.

Step aside from mitigation and you run into yet more problems. EU funding to tackle natural disasters caused by climate change? Not if you’re outside the union. Funding for climate research? Not as much according to Julia Sligo of the Met Office, who said Brexit would diminish the quality of their climate models and their climate advice.

Taking the above together, it’s difficult not to conclude that leaving reduces the likelihood of the UK making its rightful contribution to the cuts needed to avoid dangerous warming. It also lessens our ability to study and adapt to climate change – and if, as seems unlikely at the moment, the UK wants to push others to cut deeper, leaving the EU diminishes our ability to do so.

Still, forget all that if you like and look on the bright side. Leave or stay, there’s always the Climate Change Act to fall back on. That’s not going anywhere. (Touch wood.)

Can we now say that electricity storage has “broken through”?

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The question of whether electricity storage technology can overcome the problems of expense, efficiency and scalability and finally “breakthrough” is one that’s been asked again and again and again. In April last year though, this pattern was disrupted when a 44-year-old business magnate, engineer and inventor didn’t ask a question. Instead he stood up and told the world that he had the answer.

Unveiling his new electric battery – which has both home and utility scale versions – Telsa Motors boss Elon Musk said the technology represented “a fundamental transformation about how the world works”, adding that it was nothing short of a “solution” to the problem of climate change.

In terms of the overall potential of storage to tackle global warming, he undoubtedly has a point. Effective electricity storage solves the intermittency problem of wind, solar and tidal energy allowing power to be supplied at times of demand rather than only when the wind blows, sun shines or sea rises and falls. This, in theory, means renewables can be scaled up to meet all power demand, obviating the need for fossil fuel power and even other kinds of low-carbon energy like nuclear.

But if electricity storage does indeed represent an important part of the solution, has Musk, as he claims, delivered it? Or looking beyond Tesla to electricity storage in general, has it improved to a point where we’re seeing an exponential growth in take-up?

In one simple sense Musk’s own products, the Powerwall and the Powerpack, don’t represent a significant step-change because they use a technology that has been around since the 1970s: the lithium-ion battery. If a breakthrough has occurred it is one achieved through increments rather than leaps and one that is economic rather than technological.

As Forbes has pointed out, the Powerwall battery intended for home use still delivers electricity at too high a cost (30 cents per KWh) to be attractive beyond a few markets where electricity is very expensive. The Powerpack, on the other hand, is a different story. Here the costs of stored electricity are $250/kWh, a price well below the point at which they become a cheaper way to meet peak demand than building new power plants – a point one study put at $350/kWh.

As might be expected, it’s not just Tesla who are cracking the economics of electric batteries. A study published last year found that the cost of electric vehicle batteries have dropped faster than anyone projected and are now below most forecasts for the year 2020. Likewise a report in January on utility-scale storage predicts costs will decline 41% over the next five years.

But affordability on paper is one thing, real evidence of a breakthrough rests in what is happening with installed capacity. Yes Tesla has received 100,000 reservations (worth $1bn) for its batteries but these are non-binding and the firm’s Gigafactory which will make them is yet to go into production. If you look at what’s on the ground now, you find the vast majority of electricity storage – a whopping 96% globally – is pumped hydro. There’s definitely no breakthrough here as it’s an old technology inherently limited by a need for both water and a steep incline. At the other end of the scale are technologies which are genuinely breaking-ground, but barely out of the lab (supercapacitors) or limited to a small number of projects (compressed air, flywheels, flow batteries).

Elsewhere though, the word breakthrough may not be so misplaced. Thermal storage occupies second place in terms of amount installed capacity and has increased from 0.1GW in 2005 to 1.7GW in 2015 – a rise of 1700%. Forecasters expect this to double again by 2020.

There is good news too for Musk’s friend the electric battery. Its global capacity has trebled since 2010, but it is the growth in installations rather than the growth in wattage which points to its future potential. There are already more battery storage projects than storage projects for any other technology. This is due in part to battery tech’s high energy to weight ratio which means it can be used at a variety of scales. It is also very adaptable as it can be allied with a host of generation technologies. More than anything else, it’s this versatility – coupled with economic viability – which now makes electric batteries such a thrilling and open-ended prospect.

Musk was no doubt mindful of this when, in his presentation last year, he envisaged a world in which the energy needs of the entire planet – electricity, heating and transport – were met with a combination of his batteries and renewable generation. Are we there yet? Of course not. Has electricity storage broken through? Maybe (just maybe) it has.

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Global energy storage projects over time (does not include pumped hydro storage). Source: energystorageexchange.org (click for higher resolution).

 

Au revoir climate science denial, bonjour climate policy denial

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The Paris summit was variously described as a “watershed event”, as heralding a “new normal” and as a “major leap for mankind”. The progress celebrated was, of course, the heretofore impossible-seeming ability of the nations of the world to come together and agree an ambitious deal to tackle climate change.

But while COP21 undoubtedly marked a step-change in international diplomacy from 2009’s Copenhagen debacle, it can also be viewed in terms of a different paradigm shift. Whereas in 2009, any denialism centred around scepticism over climate science, the denialism emerging from Paris is all about policy.

Tweeting from COP21, the editor of Carbon Brief Leo Hickman said compared to Copenhagen, climate sceptics were now “largely seen as joke/yesterday’s men, or just ignored”. Meanwhile Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre said that “unlike previous COPs… it’s very widely acknowledged now that the science is right and that the sceptics are a relatively quiet voice”.

Yet despite the scientific consensus and the ambition of The Agreement, there remains what Anderson describes as a “huge disconnect” between what we say we want to do and what we are actually doing. There is a silent denial among politicians about the reality of their policies and it extends to both key areas of climate change mitigation: emissions reductions and negative emissions technology.

Source: carbontactiontracker.org
Global mean temperature increase about pre-industrial average by 2100. Source: carbontactiontracker.org

The on-paper ambition of Paris is to limit global temperature rises to “well below 2 degrees Celsius”, but the emission reduction pledges submitted by the signatories would deliver close to 3C of warming (left). The so-called “ratchet mechanism” (below) is intended to incrementally close this gap by requiring governments to make more ambitious commitments every five years. However, unless Governments voluntarily revise current INDCs, the first opportunity to alter trajectory is 2025 when the pledges begin to expire. As Chatham House points out, by then a decent chance of achieving 2 degrees would have gone because global emissions would need to have peaked before that.

At the same time, the importance (in terms of spending) we attach to climate change appears in stark relief to our continued commitment to fossil fuels. The IMF estimates $5.3trillion was spent subsidising, largely fossil fuel, energy production in 2015. In contrast, just $100billion a year of climate finance – less than 2% of the energy subsidy – has been promised from 2020 to help developing nations cope with climate change.

Regarding technology, academics acknowledge that, given the limitations of the pledges, negative emissions technology will needed to stay within a 1.5C, and probably a 2C, target. Yet there is no explicit mention of such technologies in The Agreement. Moreover, we remain a long way from being able scale-up these technologies, such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), to the level required. A recent study authored by 40 different scientists described relying on these unmentioned but essential technologies to keep global warming within 2C as “extremely risky”.

Sadly all these factors: double-speak over emissions cuts, lukewarm commitment to vital carbon capture and unabated attachment to fossil fuels, can be found in microcosm in the UK.

David Cameron described the Paris deal as “a huge step forward in securing the future of the planet” and added Britain was “already leading the way in work to cut emissions and help less developed countries cut theirs”.

However a string of policy announcements last year, including cutting subsidies for solar power, scrapping the green deal on insulation and abolishing the zero carbon homes standard, seemed to reduce action to tackle climate change. Indeed, the chair of the Government’s committee on climate change, Lord Deben, advised ministers that because of such policies the UK’s own carbon targets may now be missed. This incompatibility of words and deeds was not lost on commentators, with Michael Grubb of University College London saying “It is beginning to look like the UK has two governments”.

It is a similar story with technology. Lord Deben’s committee said CCS has a “crucial role to play in long-term decarbonisation of the economy”. Yet last November the Conservative Government cancelled its £1bn competition for CCS, breaking their own manifesto pledge. Meanwhile, according to George Osborne, the Government remains “110% committed” to fossil fuel extraction in the North Sea and continues to support the industry through tax breaks.

It is all a long way from the optimism and euphoria in Paris.  That emotion points to a genuine desire for action but policy must quickly become more consistent with sentiment if the spirit of Paris is to honoured. “It is a little hammer, but I think it can do great things,” said Laurent Fabius as he banged down his gavel and sealed The Agreement. So far we must be content with great words, because great things remain to be seen.

‘Ratchet mechanism’ infograph. Source: carbonbrief.org
‘Ratchet mechanism’ infograph. Source: carbonbrief.org