Malcolm on the perils of large biomass plants for low-carbon energy in Edinburgh Northern & Leith
Debate on a Low-Carbon Economy Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (Lab):
I want to concentrate on energy from a constituency point of view. There are wider agendas in achieving a low-carbon Scotland, including a step change in housing insulation and a serious drive towards a green transport strategy.

I want to ask what should be included in a definition of green energy, and to ask that question in the context of Forth Ports Ltd’s plans for Leith docks. At a recent meeting with the chief executive of Forth Ports, I was told that the company - which has recently been taken over by Arcus - was abandoning its housing plans for the Leith docks area in order to develop a renewable energy hub based on offshore wind and large-scale biomass, the latter as Forth Energy in partnership with Scottish and Southern Energy. For Forth Ports, these two go hand in hand, but I want to challenge the green credentials of large-scale biomass while welcoming the prospect of Leith docks as a site for the manufacture and assembly of wind turbines, as envisaged in Scottish Enterprise’s national renewables infrastructure plan. There have been massive campaigns in Leith over the past year or more against the proposed large-scale biomass plant at Leith docks. This action has been spearheaded by the formidable and admirable no Leith biomass group.

I have submitted detailed objections that cover the many specifically local implications as well as the wider climate change consequences. Given the subject of our debate, I want to concentrate on the latter, although visual, traffic and local environmental concerns are all covered in my submission, which is on my website and the Scottish Government’s website - I thank the Scottish Government for that.

Greener Leith is a key organisation that opposes the proposal, and its website refers to many important reports that question the green credentials of large-scale biomass. For example, it refers to a new report that has been produced by a coalition of European non-governmental organisations, which raises a host of environmental concerns about the growth and use of biomass for electricity generation, and includes a startling graph that shows that a biomass plant that uses a typical European-managed forest would result in increased carbon emissions for the first two and a half centuries. Perhaps that it is not too surprising if we consider that burning wood emits more carbon in the short run than burning coal. The scenario could be even worse if unsustainable plantations are used, and stopping that would be impossible in the future, despite the current guarantees from Forth Energy.

On its website, Greener Leith highlights a key quote from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, which has said: “In particular, we are concerned that the methodology deployed to calculate the lifetime greenhouse gas savings”

of the scheme - that is, the Leith biomass plant proposal -

“includes an assumption of zero emissions from land within the growing cycle of the fuels ... This is likely to be incorrect and therefore leads to a potentially significant underestimate of green house gas emissions from the fuel. The calculation of greenhouse gas savings from transport may also be underestimated.”

Forth Energy has consistently promoted the idea that burning wood fuel and replenishing crops after harvest limits the levels of carbon that are released into the atmosphere, but an increasing number of environmental organisations have stated that that position is too simplistic. The long-term effects of biomass combustion on the atmosphere and on climate change depend on the type of feedstock that is used, how sustainable the source is, and the alternative energy sources that are displaced by investment in such plants.

It is remarkable that Forth Energy continues to categorise biomass energy as carbon neutral, as a large body of evidence has been produced by groups such as Friends of the Earth to demonstrate that biomass is not anywhere near as efficient as alternative clean energy sources, which represent far more effective use of Government funding and deliver instant carbon reduction. Biomass would not only displace traditional fossil fuel sources; it would affect the ability of wind and tidal power to distribute clean carbon-neutral energy throughout Scotland.

The moving planet march that will take place in Edinburgh this weekend will aim to highlight the fact that moving from fossil fuels to clean energy sources is essential in tackling climate change and poverty. As outlined in Friends of the Earth’s recent briefing on the event, that means that policy must be directed to ensuring investment in appropriate sustainable technologies.

Kevin Stewart:
What are Mr Chisholm’s feelings about small-scale biomass, such as the biomass boiler that is being used to deal with the energy needs of the new Marischal college project in Aberdeen, which has received European funding?

Malcolm Chisholm:
I was going to come on to that issue, although I may not have time to cover everything that I wanted to cover. Small-scale biomass - particularly for combined heat and power - is exactly what we need, rather than large-scale biomass. I was going to refer to an earlier Friends of the Earth publication entitled “Energy from Biomass: Straw Man or Future Fuel?” which made that particular point. It supported small-scale biomass plants and highlighted the issue of transportation of biomass material. That is, of course, a major concern for the proposed Leith plant, because the wood would be brought in from thousands of miles away. We must take all such factors into account. I am seriously concerned that the plant that has been proposed for Leith docks is not small scale, that the proposal would involve intensive harvesting overseas and long-distance transport, and that no concrete plans have been provided to date on how the heat by-product of combustion would be effectively distributed to the wider city.

I realise that there is a live application, but I do not see why the Government should not have a policy against large-scale biomass. It has a policy against nuclear power stations that does not rule out submission of individual applications. The Government should therefore have a policy against large-scale biomass. If it will not go that far, it should at least have a moratorium, pending further research on its climate change implications.
September 22nd 2011