Dutch struggle over biomass is heating up

Posted on Posted in Opinion

By guest author Linde Zuidema, Bioenergy Campaigner, Fern

Since the middle of last year, the Dutch government has come under increasing fire over its climate and energy policy. The main issue on the table: the need for a total phase out of coal and biomass co-firing.

In June 2015, a Dutch court ordered the state to reduce CO2 emissions by 25% within five years, compared to 1990 levels. Then in December, the Dutch Parliament backed a call by 64 scientists to phase out all remaining coal plants by 2020, as this is the only way to mitigate emissions in such a short timeframe. But the Minister of Economic Affairs, Henk Kamp, immediately responded by saying that coal plants should keep operating to allow co-firing of biomass to ensure that renewable energy targets can be reached.

Both scientists and the Parliament reacted by challenging the wisdom of burning biomass for energy. The scientists say that phasing out coal should be prioritised over biomass co-firing, but at the same time highlighted the potential environmental and climate impacts of burning biomass for energy.

Over the last weeks, the debate has heated up again. In early February, the Dutch Parliament adopted a resolution to suspend subsidies for biomass co-firing until a political agreement is reached for a total phase-out of coal. And last week at a parliamentary debate, Kamp stated that a final decision on the future of coal and co-firing with biomass would be taken by the end of this year, adding that “the end of the year will be quite an interesting time”. However, soon after, Kamp made an ambivalent announcement that companies will still be able to apply for co-firing subsidies, under the condition that investment will only go ahead if the government decides against a total coal phase-out.

The government’s main concern with abandoning biomass co-firing seems to be energy security and not being able to reach renewables targets, which are binding under EU law. But the 64 scientists have argued that closing coal plants would not necessarily interfere with energy security. And last week, Natuur en Milieu and energy company Eneco presented a feasible alternative energy scenario which replaces the need for coal and biomass with a stronger focus on wind power.

Under this plan, generating energy would not only be cheaper than a ‘biomass scenario’, but it would also lead to more jobs and lead the country into a true energy transition. They’ve shown that by abandoning biomass co-firing, the Dutch government would free up 3.5 billion euros of subsidies which could be used to facilitate the closure of coal plants and be invested in cleaner technologies like wind and solar.

Fern is anxiously awaiting a final decision from the Dutch government to phase out coal and biomass co-firing altogether. We’ve joined other NGOs in being very critical of current EU renewable energy policies which have only incentivized biomass use for electricity generation by Member States. Large-scale use of biomass for electricity generation has many drawbacks: it can be harmful for the environment and forest biodiversity, while its climate benefits are uncertain and speculative.

Dutch NGOs, energy companies and the government have partly acknowledged these concerns by signing the Dutch Energy Agreement (2013) which committed the government to closing five of the oldest worst polluting coal plants, to developing sustainability criteria for biomass, and to applying a volume cap of 25 Peta Joule for co-firing with biomass. Final sustainability criteria are expected this month.

The decision to suspend subsidies comes at a time when large-scale biomass co-firing for electricity is coming increasingly under fire in some EU countries. Particularly in France, the UK and Belgium, where public concern over burning wood for electricity is rising, while its impacts on forests within and outside Europe are becoming more and more clear.

Let’s hope the Dutch government acknowledges that the limited biomass available should be used in a more efficient way. That focus should be placed on reducing energy demand and promoting other renewables instead of burning away and wasting valuable woody resources. A firm decision from the Dutch to phase out coal and biomass co-firing entirely would set a great example for other countries in the EU to follow.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this guest blog post are those of the author and not necessarily supported by BirdLife Europe/EEB/T&E.

Photo: Firewalking on coal (c) Davida3, Flickr Creative Commons

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