Bioenergy World Leaders

As the world concentrates on producing renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the U.K. and China seem to be pulling ahead of the pack in efforts to meet their individually established goals.
By Lisa Gibson
A 295-megawatt (MW) power plant at Teesport, Northeast England, will run on wood chips shipped to the port, generating enough electricity to power a grocery import warehouse, along with hundreds of thousands of homes, once it's operational in 2012. In China's Inner Mongolia province, a 50-MW biomass power plant will soon supply power to the grid fueled by nearby straw resources.

The world's progress toward a healthy increase in renewable energy use is evident in the individual goals set by numerous countries and subsequent rapid growth and development. Both the U.K. and China set targets to generate 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020 and seem to be hot spots for development. Announcements of new plants come out of the U.K. almost daily, and China has dominated headlines for its aggressive development plan.

Progress in the UK

The U.K. has 101 solid-fuel biomass power plants that are accredited or preliminarily accredited under the government-run Renewables Obligation, including stations that cofire with coal and biomass, according to the Office of the Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem) register. The register also lists 399 power plants accredited or preliminarily accredited for landfill gas and 136 for sewage gas. Renewable electricity plants need to be accredited by Ofgem to be eligible for Renewable Obligation Certificates, tradable certificates that incentivize renewable energy generation, according to Jonathan Farr, of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. The U.K. has a plethora of biomass projects on the verge of approval, as well, according to Leonie Greene, external affairs representative for the Renewable Energy Association.

An REA map that outlines U.K. renewable energy plant locations ( shows about 15 biofuels plants, including bio-ethanol and biodiesel, six combined-heat-and-power facilities and 26 solid fuel plants, producing wood pellets, wood chips and other solid biomass fuel.

Still, the biomass market is in its infancy, according to Chris Moore, director of MGT Power, which is developing the 295-MW plant at Teesport, along with another 295-MW plant at the Port of Tyne, England. Both will consume 2.65 million tons of wood chips annually shipped from areas including the U.S., Brazil and the Baltics. Other plants approved but not yet constructed include a Prenergy Power Ltd. 350-MW power plant at Port Talbot, Wales, and Tilbury Green Power's 60-MW waste-to-energy plant at Tilbury Docks, England. As these and other plants come on line, tariffs and government incentives pave the way for the next wave of biomass development.

The Switch

In addition to the RO, the U.K. government has incentives in place to spur renewable energy development, such as measures that support farmers who grow energy crops and a proposed Feed-In Tariff for smaller-scale biomass electricity generation that will support facilities under 5 MW. In addition, a proposed Renewable Heat Incentive has attracted interest in injecting biomethane into the gas grid and should be effective in April 2011, Greene says.

But the catalyst behind the unprecedented growth in biomass power and biofuel is the recent banding of the Renewables Obligation, according to Moore and Greene. The new structure, effective since the spring of 2009, awards tariffs based on technology type. It previously awarded payments on a one-size-fits-all basis. "For the past eight years, it's been technology blind," Moore says.

That new system is attracting interest in anaerobic digestion (AD), an area where Greene says the U.K. is lagging. Feed-In Tariffs also are sparking interest in AD, as they will allocate payments on the basis of total power generation, not just what is sold to the grid, she says. AD is a popular method of waste-to-energy conversion and has plenty of potential in the region. "The U.K. does have a waste disposal problem," she says.

The RO banding, however, still favors the U.K.'s main interest in renewable energy: off-shore wind. The technology sits the highest on the RO tariff scale. "If it's committed to anything, it's committed to wind," Greene says, adding that the U.K. is very proud of its massive off-shore wind energy potential. But problems with installing wind turbines in deep water and issues surrounding transmission access make wide implementation difficult and extremely expensive.

Moore sees that issue as another trigger for rapid biomass-to-energy development, as the switch from fossil fuels progresses. About 30 percent of the U.K.'s power generating capacity from nuclear power and coal will need to be shut down by 2015 because of old age and emissions, he explains. Companies seeking to build new coal-fired stations have been denied by the governments, unless the facilities have scrubbers to clean emissions, Moore says.

"We have found that we can produce our green electricity at a substantial discount to off-shore wind price," he says. "What should happen in a fair market is biomass will flip the market until it depresses the price of green energy to a new break-even point for biomass." The market system in the U.K. takes the cheapest type of green electricity first, Moore says, citing municipal solid waste-to-energy systems. Landfill gas is also used heavily, but the method is tapped out, he adds, along with on-shore wind development sites in the mountains. "And so the Holy Grail, the future for the U.K. in terms of more electricity supply, is off-shore wind," he says. "But it's expensive, so it creates a gap in the market where large-scale biomass can operate with very attractive returns."

Moore predicts that gap will last for the next 10 to 15 years, when off-shore wind and large-scale biomass will close in on each other in terms of economics and returns for developers.

Biomass Energy Trends

As in any market, trends emerge in biomass energy that set the stage for further development. The industrial-scale plans of MGT Power and other companies have attracted interest in larger facilities, Moore says, adding that MGT executives think small plants are inefficient. "We don't believe western civilizations are ever going to tackle global warming if we try to pretend that renewable energy should always be the preserve of small, cute, marginal technologies,'' he emphasizes. "Now that we've pioneered the model, most of the European utilities are developing similar-scale projects."

Some other companies are indeed beginning to develop larger facilities, but also are following MGT's lead by establishing sites at ports for the shipment of feedstock, instead of relying on locally sourced biomass. There is a problem with a reliable supply of biomass fuel in the U.K., according to Greene. So if a plant obtains biomass solely from local sources, it will have to be a small one. In addition, bringing in feedstock by ship has the same carbon footprint as transporting it 40 miles by road, Moore says. Poor forestry roads add to the problem.

The U.K. does, however, possess a stock of unrecyclable waste wood that goes into landfills, Greene says, to the tune of 4 million to 5 million tons each year. Grants available for energy crops are expected to increase, too, Farr says, from 40 percent to 50 percent of planting costs. The DECC is also researching ways to get higher yields of biomass from the crops, and grants under the Bioenergy Infrastructure Scheme will help develop robust biomass supply chains, he adds.

Bioenergy in China

China is one of the world's largest energy consumers, second only to the U.S. Between 2005 and 2030, China is expected to receive about 23 percent of total global investment in renewable energy, amounting to about $1.2 trillion, according to "China: Clean and Renewable Energy Report to 2010" produced by Ireland-based Research and Markets. The country will focus on energy production from hydro, wind, solar and biomass.

The National Development and Reform Commission, the country's primary macroeconomic planner, has set a goal for biomass power capacity of 5.5 gigawatts (GW) by 2010 and 30 by 2020. But meeting that 30-GW goal is looking increasingly unlikely, according to Ryan Wiser, who is researching renewable energy in China for the Center for Resource Solutions, a U.S.-based nonprofit working to mitigate climate change. Biomass projects aren't being added to China's renewable energy arsenal rapidly enough, he says. "There are rumors that [China's] 30-gigawatt goal will be reduced in the not-so-distant future to reflect a more realistic deployment path," he says.

A Feed-In Tariff established under the national Renewable Energy Law was intended to help meet that 2020 goal, Wiser says. The tariff provides biomass power generators with an additional incentive of 25 fen (4 cents) per kilowatt hour on top of the local coal price. The Renewable Energy Law, established in 2006, is the most important driver for biomass development in China, according to "Background Paper: Chinese Renewables Status Report October 2009," by the Renewable Policy Network for the 21st Century (Ren21).

A system of subsequent supporting policies has continued to support biomass power development in China including "Guidelines for Renewable Energy Sectors," which laid a foundation for further implementing and formulating policies and financial incentives. "Management Measures for Power Generation from Renewable Energy Sources" is an elaboration of regulatory regime, project management and grid connections for renewable power; and the "Interim Management Measures for Renewable Power Tariff and Cost Allocation" outlines specific provisions of legal tariff and cost sharing, the report states.

China's Bioenergy History

Available feedstocks in China include bagasse, agricultural straw and stalks, agro-product processing residues, forest residues, wood mill residues, municipal wastes, and industrial organic wastes including solid wastes and sewage. Technologies used include direct and mixed combustion, gasification and waste incineration. In 2008, a biomass power generating capacity of 3,136 MW was installed nationwide, according to the report. That was a large increase from 2,709 MW the year before, and 2,219 in 2006.

Bagasse has been used heavily since the beginning of Chinese biomass power development in the 1960s. In 1985, 600 MW from bagasse were installed, according to the Ren21 report. In 1990, waste incineration began attracting attention and added 18 MW to the biomass power capacity, according to the report. In 2000, 1,100 MW were installed and 1,120 in 2001. The use of rice husks began in 2002, when a total of 1,652 MW were added, and landfill gas and biogas began rapid development in 2005, contributing toward that year's capacity installation of 2,071 MW, the report states.

Liquid biofuels have had a less impressive past in China and have remained relatively undeveloped, the paper states. A 3,000-tons-per-annum (tpa) cellulosic ethanol project was founded by Henan Tianguan Group and is the first 1,000-ton cellulosic ethanol project in the country, the report says. Biogasoline projects also are underway, along with biodiesel.

The capacity for biodiesel production in China is more than 3 million metric tons, about 900 million gallons. Twenty-six biodiesel businesses with the capacity of 10,000 tpa currently operate, and a number of large-scale biodiesel projects are under construction with a total capacity of 3 million metric tons, according to the report. Production in 2007 was only 10 percent of capacity because of high prices and a shortage of raw material. Barriers to biodiesel development include feedstock constraints and the lack of a marketing channel and incentive policy, the report says.

Looking Ahead

Direct combustion is the dominant biomass power generation technology in China because of technical or regulatory obstacles that hinder the development of other technologies, according to the report. Researchers do expect, however, that biomass power generation technologies will be diversified, with co-combustion becoming dominant. They also expect that an appropriate size of 5 to 10 MW per single gasification technology will be widely deployed.

The National Development and Reform Commission's "Medium- and Long-Term Development Plan for Renewable Energy in China" says that priority sectors up to 2010 and 2020 will be biomass power, biogas, biomass pellets and liquid biofuels. Agro and forestry biomass power generation will be established in China's main grain production areas, it adds, and the installed capacity of agro, forestry and energy crops by 2010 will be 4 GW. By 2020, it will reach 24 GW. Also by 2010, 4,700 large-scale biomass projects will be built on livestock farms, along with 1,600 biogas projects using industrial organic effluent, for a total installed capacity of 1 GW. By 2020, 10,000 large-scale, livestock-farm biogas projects will be built and 6,000 using industrial organic effluent, equalling 3 GW, it says.

China's aggressive biomass power plans have positioned the country at center stage as the world looks ahead to a fossil fuel-free energy market, while the U.K.'s recent rapid development has done the same. The two countries seem to be leading the globe toward a reliable renewable energy cache. BIO

Lisa Gibson is a Biomass Magazine associate editor. Reach her at or (701) 738-4952.