Everything you need to know about bioenergy

Everything you need to know about bioenergy

28 January 2020

It’s 2020, and about time we started talking about bioenergy. We provide our customers with 100% renewable electricity as standard. That means we match all our customers’ consumption with renewable generators across Britain, including solar, wind farms, and sustainable bio-generation. While the focus has often been on solar and wind power, biomass has held a lower profile. So what exactly is bio-generation, how does it help to power your home, and how exactly is it renewable?

What is bioenergy?

Bioenergy, or biomass, is one of the oldest sources of energy. Back in the Neanderthal days, cave-dwellers would create wood fires to cook food and keep warm, and from then on we’ve managed to harness energy from burning all sorts of organic materials.

Bioenergy is made from anything that is derived from organic matter, including wood, crops, and waste products. This organic matter is generally referred to as biomass. If you cast your mind back to photosynthesis lessons at school, you’ll remember how all plants are able to store energy that’s absorbed from the sun. When this biomass is then burned, chemical energy is released as heat or steam. This is called biogas, and is utilised to create electricity to power all sorts of things, right from mass scale turbines to your kettle and TV.

Bioenergy can be created from anything that’s plant-derived, so there’s an abundance of options to source it from:

  • Wood
  • Crops, such as corn and sugarcane
  • Food waste
  • Sewage

Once we start to explore these possibilities, the opportunity to utilise bioenergy to contribute electrical power to the grid becomes significant. But before we get into all that, let’s scale it back a bit.

How does bioenergy work?

While there are ways of harnessing bioenergy from different sources, the main principle stays the same - burn the source and the energy will be produced. The key is being able to store and harness it in an effective way.

Utilising these sources of energy provides an efficient way to create electricity, avoiding the direct carbon emissions produced by coal fired power plants. By using a by-product that otherwise would be delivered to useless depots to idly decompose and emit uncontrolled methane (a climate harming gas), a circular and sustainable economy is created, reducing waste and improving energy efficiencies.

And by burning the by-products to produce steam, you can then power a turbine to make electricity. That power is then provided to the grid which powers homes across the country.

Advantages of bioenergy

First and foremost, sustainable biomass is renewable. The fuel sources can be regrown or resupplied, and as long as efforts are made to maintain biomass resources, the process can be relied upon as a sustainable method of renewable energy production.

And as well as being renewable, sustainable biomass production is carbon neutral, which means that it doesn’t release any extra carbon into the atmosphere. The only carbon released is what was absorbed by the plants during their life cycles, which transfers to the materials used for biomass production.

As these plants are replenished, the new ones then absorb the same amount of carbon again, creating a neutrality that sees no new carbon created. However, bioenergy producers need to be careful that they don’t upset this balance through their production methods.

UK biomass production

As specified by Ofgem regulations, biomass stations greater than 1MW that are based in the UK must report against and meet particular sustainability criteria in order to be eligible for Renewables Obligation Certificates (ROCs)*. This criteria includes the carbon emissions associated with the cultivation, processing and transportation of their biomass fuels.

Biomass stations can also apply for Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin certificates (REGOs), which allow electricity suppliers to prove to their customers that a given share of energy was produced from renewable sources. We only source our renewable electricity from stations that have been accredited with these certificates. Read more about how we use REGOs.

As the UK looks to reduce its dependence on traditional energy sources, more biomass plants are in development for the future to form part of a mix of renewable generation sources alongside wind and solar. The world’s largest biomass plant is currently being built for construction this year, and will be located at Teesport in the North East.

So what does this mean for you?

By being a retail customer of Shell Energy, you're helping to support all types of renewable generation through our purchase of REGOs which sends a strong investment signal to the industry as a whole.

*Biomass sustainability | Ofgem | https://www.ofgem.gov.uk/environmental-programmes/ro/applicants/biomass-sustainability