Biomass produce much more emissions than coal, natural gas: study

Biomass power plant

Generating electricity from biomass creates more greenhouse gas emissions than coal and gas, according to a yet-to-be-published study by DNV GL consultancy commissioned by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management that newspaper AD has in its possession. 

Burning wood in a biomass plant produces 20 percent more nitrogen, particulate matter and greenhouse gas than electricity from a coal plant. Generating heat with biomass produces twice as much nitrogen as using natural gas for heating. Replacing coal with biomass in the large coal-fired power stations will lead to about 5 percent more emissions, according to the researchers. 

The Dutch government regards biomass as an important sustainable energy source that is needed to achieve the Netherlands' climate goals and to stop gas mining in Groningen. No less than 11.5 billion euros in subsidies have been reserved for this. The coal-fired power stations in Geertruidenberg and Eemshaven already run partly on wood pellets. The plan is to have them eventually run completely on biomass. In addition, over 600 smaller biomass plants and installations will be built in the Netherlands in the coming years, according to AD.

In total, the large coal-fired power plants in the Netherlands emit several million kilograms of nitrogen and other particulate matter per year. That is without the new biomass plants and installations that will be built in the coming years. 

Biomass is considered sustainable, because the CO2 that is released during combustion can be absorbed again by new trees that are planted. But a few months ago the European umbrella organization for scientists (EASAC) stated that biomass is not sustainable - new trees need time to grow before they absorb enough CO2 and the current demand for biomass is already gigantic. That will result in a 'carbon bomb' of emissions in the coming years, EASAC warned. 

Last month Johan Remkes' nitrogen committee advised the government to stop the subsidies for burning biomass in coal plants. Energy company RWE, which receives 2.6 billion euros in subsidy to burn biomass in its coal plants, called this "bizarre and incorrect", according to AD. According to the company, power plants are equipped with filters that partially purify nitrogen from the flue gasses before they leave the chimney, so burning biomass does not lead to more nitrogen emissions. But the researchers at DNV GL disagree, arguing that wood is not an efficient fuel. That means that more wood than coal needs to be burned to generate the same amount of electricity, leading to more emissions. 

The Dutch municipal health services (GGD) also raised concerns about the effects of biomass power stations on air quality. "Now that biomass is leading to more emissions, the government must think again. In the interest of public health, these emissions must be limited", a GGD spokesperson said to AD. 

The Ministry of Infrastructure insists that biomass is important for succeeding at the "climate challenge", according to the newspaper. Though the Ministry added that biomass will only be used under two conditions - it must involve sustainable biomass, and biomass must be used as little as possible in the long-term. 

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