Assessing Options for Electricity Generation from Biomass on a Life Cycle Basis: Environmental and Economic Evaluation


Co-firing biomass with coal is being increasingly seen in the EU region as an option that could contribute not only towards reaching the Kyoto targets on greenhouse gas emissions but also towards compliance with the EU directives on renewable energy and large combustion plants. Perennial grasses, short rotation coppice, seasonal agricultural residues and waste forestry wood are all considered as viable alternatives. However, although the use of biomass for electricity generation could help reduce direct emissions of pollutants generated during combustion of coal, including carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, the whole life cycle implications of using biomass are less clear. This paper uses a life cycle approach to evaluate the environmental impacts and economic costs of co-firing with coal three types of biomass: miscanthus, willow and waste forest wood. Both direct combustion and gasification of biomass are considered. The results of life cycle assessment indicate that all biomass options lead to a substantial reduction in the environmental impacts compared to the coal-only power generation. Overall, use of waste wood appears to be environmentally the most sustainable option. In comparison to direct combustion, biomass gasification has higher global warming potential due to the higher consumption of biomass and energy for gasification. The results of the life cycle economic costing show that electricity from biomass is economically less attractive than from coal. Direct firing is two times more expensive than coal and gasification up to three times. Therefore, while attractive from the environmental point of view, biomass appears currently to be less sustainable economically.

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    It is assumed that the electricity consumed in the gasification process is obtained from the UK grid and hence considered as part of the background system.


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The work presented in this paper is part of two projects funded by EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council): Pollutants in the Urban Environment (PUrE), funded under the Sustainable Urban Environment (SUE) programme (grant no. EP/C532651/2); and Calculation of Carbon Footprints over the Life Cycle of Industrial Activities, funded under the Carbon Vision Industry programme (grant no. EP/F003501/1). This funding is gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Adisa Azapagic.

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Jeswani, H.K., Gujba, H. & Azapagic, A. Assessing Options for Electricity Generation from Biomass on a Life Cycle Basis: Environmental and Economic Evaluation. Waste Biomass Valor 2, 33–42 (2011).

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  • Biomass
  • Climate change
  • Electricity generation
  • Economic assessment
  • Life cycle assessment