A new study has concluded that transitioning to wind and solar power would be a cheaper option for the United Kingdom to replace its coal fleet than using biomass electricity generation.
According to a new study published this week by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and conducted by London-based Vivid Economics, which examined the full system costs of renewable energy technologies like wind and solar in comparison to biomass as a replacement for the UK’s coal fleet, wind and solar came out as the cheaper option.
The UK already uses a lot of biomass for electricity generation, with the report concluding that “biomass supplies the lion’s share” of the country’s renewable electricity generation. However, as the authors of the report note:
“…recent science shows that many forms of biomass produce more carbon emissions than fossil fuels like coal and natural gas—especially biomass from forests—increasing carbon pollution precisely when the United Kingdom aims to rapidly decarbonise its electricity sector.”
The study therefore analyzed three key costs:
1. The latest technology costs across biomass, solar, onshore wind, and offshore wind technologies
2. The cost of ensuring a reliable electricity supply
3. The cost of GHG emissions given the United Kingdom’s legislative commitment to keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius — the basis for international commitments on climate change enshrined in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement
The study concluded that, by 2020, “when fully accounting for the total economic cost of different energy technologies, biomass is more costly than wind and solar alternatives.”
“The science already shows that burning biomass on a mass scale for electricity increases carbon pollution and is extremely harmful to the environment,” said Sasha Stashwick, a senior advocate with NRDC, a US-based environmental organization.
“The emissions risks associated with biomass are simply too big to be ignored, and now we see that the economics of biomass don’t make sense as the UK strives to replace coal and decarbonize its power sector. This report clearly indicates that when you account for total economic costs, cleaner alternatives like wind and solar are the lower-cost solution for a coal-free UK. It’s just good economic sense.”
The report further concludes that solar and wind are likely to be the least-cost method to ensure UK reliability of supply by 2025. In addition, biomass is already a mature technology, and unlikely to see further cost decreases, whereas both wind and solar continue to see cost declines, and are predicted to continue to see cost declines into the future.
“Phasing out coal is absolutely necessary as the UK aims to curb climate change, but we can’t afford to backtrack by focusing on unsustainable forms of biomass that are neither clean nor cheap,” added Matt Williams, Policy Officer with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). “It is critical that we focus on renewable forms of energy that deliver emissions reductions and protect wildlife and the natural environment while providing value for money, so as to ensure that the UK hits its legally binding climate change targets.”