The UK’s New Biomass Path after Brexit

Over the past six months, the political landscape in the United Kingdom has changed significantly. Following the results of the EU referendum, where 52 percent voted to leave the European Union, we have seen the prime minister resign, a change in direction of the new Conservative government, the new Department for Exiting the EU take the first steps to negotiate the U.K. leaving, and a departmental shuffle has meant that the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) has been absorbed by the new Department for Business, Energy, & Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

There remains a lot of uncertainty over what Brexit—Britain exiting the European Union—means, as the government is holding its cards very close to its chest. It even seems likely that the British population won’t know the terms of the divorce settlement from the EU until after the negotiations have ended.

In these uncertain times, some political commitments are still standing strong: The long-term decarbonisations of the UK energy supply and the wider economy. Days after the referendum, the government confirmed the fifth carbon budget, and parliament has subsequently formally approved the targets, which commit the U.K. to cutting emissions by 57 percent against 1990 levels by 2032. This is a huge step, which boosts investor confidence by setting out a legal commitment to decarbonisation and the overall political direction.

When DECC was cut, many green organisations protested, as it could be seen as prioritising climate change and leaving it on a lone civil servant’s desk in an obscure basement office within the business department. However, the new department has been filled with environmentally friendly ministers who have historically been supportive of renewables, led by Secretary of State Greg Clark MP, previously the opposition energy and climate change spokesperson, and author of reports on climate change, sustainability and environment. Other ministers include Nick Hurd MP, who is part of a Conservative environmental group, led solar in Africa projects as development minister, and chaired a parliamentary environmental group; and Baroness Neville-Rolfe, who previously worked at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and was a director at the U.K.’s biggest supermarket, Tesco. It is still early, however, and we have yet to see new policies from the new BEIS team. In the coming months, we will start to understand the department’s priorities and how they wish to deal with energy and decarbonisation.

In the U.K., biomass has never had an easy time, with strong opposition from NGOs, who have been campaigning vigorously against any bioenergy. There is still some mistrust of the use of wood residues for the production of energy, despite rigorous external scrutiny of greenhouse gas savings and forest practices. There is still no support under the Contract for Difference subsidy scheme for dedicated biomass power, and a cap remains on biomass power under the Renewables Obligation subsidy scheme, but there is support for biomass combined heat and power. We saw the previous Conservative government propose lower support for biomass heat and refocus away from smaller systems toward larger, industrial biomass heat plants, but the outcome of the government’s consultation will be published later this year. The previous Conservative government questioned the availability of sustainable biomass, which restricted policy proposals, but as new ministers have entered the departments, we have been engaging with them to inform and help them see the potential of biomass. Despite it still being a Conservative government, we have a new prime minister and almost the entire ministerial team has been replaced or reshuffled. It is, therefore, an excellent opportunity to take a more positive stance toward biomass energy generation.

Not since World War II has the U.K. seen such tumultuous political times, with changes to how we deal with our neighbouring countries, legislative procedures, trade relations, and immigration, to name a few. But some things haven’t changed: The U.K. is still strongly committed to decarbonising its energy system and economy. New ministers are seen as green conservatives, and the newly created department could bring decarbonisation even further. As we work and engage with the new ministers and political leadership, we could potentially also see a change in attitude toward the great potential of biomass energy, which could lower the cost of decarbonisation, bring flexible, baseload energy, and benefit our undermanaged forests. The U.K. is on a new path.

Published on, October 25, 2016

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