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The Coal-Biomass-BECCS Pathway: A key tool for decarbonising energy systems around the world

The UK is the world-leader in sustainable bioenergy.

The UK is a world-leader in a decarbonisation story that many may not be aware of, but one that has helped to dramatically reduce emissions over the last decade and looks set to deliver a key part of the Net Zero solution. In a new edition of the Electric Insights report with Imperial College, we explored the example that the UK has set through its use of sustainable bioenergy and how the UK’s past, present and future might provide lessons for others.

The UK pioneered the use of large-scale biomass for electricity generation, and the report shows that the UK currently has the highest share of electricity production from biomass of any large country (countries with over 100 TWh/year electricity demand). This has meant that the UK has also had a large role in the development of the science-led sustainability criteria which govern the use of biomass, with the current UK system one of the world’s most rigorous. The results are shown in independent, official data from authorities such as the US Forest Service, showing that working forests supplying UK bioenergy feedstocks are continuing to see growth, backed-up by effective sustainability regulations.

The first stage of this ‘Coal-Biomass-BECCS’ (CBB) Pathway takes place in a high-fossil fuel power system (the UK’s past). Coal-to-biomass conversions have allowed some power stations to transition away from fossil fuels to renewables, maintaining thousands of jobs and investment in key infrastructure whilst securing emissions reductions of over 85% on a lifecycle basis. From 2012-2019, coal-to-biomass conversions reduced carbon emissions by 10 MtCO2 per year (the equivalent of taking 2.17 million cars off the road every year).

The second stage of the CBB Pathway is in a high-renewables system (increasingly the UK’s present). Sustainable biomass provides low-carbon, firm, dispatchable power, giving the similar reliable functionality of coal without the high emissions. The flexibility services of sustainable bioenergy, including inertia and grid balancing, help the overall system to integrate variable renewables like wind and solar, as well as lowering grid management costs, which are paid by energy consumers. These costs are expected to rise in coming years, so low-carbon energy sources that help to keep them down are especially welcome.

The third stage of the CBB Pathway is Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), which offers one of the most credible routes to delivering negative emissions. The Climate Change Committee describes negative emissions as “a necessity, not an option” for Net Zero and sees a major role for BECCS in removing between 20 and 65 MtCO2e/yr. by 2050.

Not every country in the world will pursue this ‘CBB Pathway’, but the UK has shown how it can make a big contribution to decarbonisation: with a strong carbon price, implementation of the IPCC’s carbon accounting rules, strong sustainability criteria applied to the whole supply chain and investment in key technologies. The CBB Pathway is a stable, cost-effective route map for lasting and meaningful decarbonisation, supporting major emissions reductions in power systems as part of a range of energy options. The flexibility and stability that biomass brings as part of the transition away from coal allows for greater expansion of intermittent renewables such as wind and solar power. The use of biomass in a renewable energy mix not only supports decarbonisation now, but also opens the door for negative emissions, which will prove crucial if we are to have a chance of avoiding catastrophic global warming.

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