Biomass – dirtier than coal?

Last week I pointed out that every form of energy production has snags – and suggested that we should give a higher priority to reducing our energy needs.

Here’s another example, and it’s rather similar to the situation regarding biofuels (described in Chapter 13 of Fighting for Birds).

Robin Stott [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Using biomass to fuel power stations looks immediately attractive.  If you lopped off a few tree limbs and burn them then the tree will replace the lost wood and you get back the carbon you have released.  Many of our UK woods could do with more management and so this looks like a great example where everyone wins – more management produces better habitat (if done well) and rural jobs and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Imagine some thinning out of our woods and the use of brash and thinnings to fuel power stations – sounds good doesn’t it.

That’s certainly how it could work – and that would be great.  However, you have to do the sums, and when you do, it seems that the immense need for biomass will lead to whole forests being cut down to meet it and most of them will be outside the UK.  DECC expects 80% biomass feedstock to be met from imports, primarily from Scandinavia, Russia, Canada and the US.

Forest Research state: The possibility that [UK bioenergy demand] might be met from ongoing management of forest areas already in production was explored, but finally discounted on both a pure theoretical basis and in the light of evidence on likely changes to patterns for wood demand. Instead it was concluded that a significant increase in requirement for imported wood in the UK would entail intensification of the management of forests in other countries, similar in some respects to restoration of management in neglected forests.

Similar in some respects?  But not presumably in others? For example, here are the fears of American nature conservationists about the prospect of bioenergy destroying the southern forests in which I enjoyed watching prothonotary warbler and in which the rare red-cockaded woodpecker hangs on in places.

The Renewable Energy Association seems to think that there is nothing to worry about here too – provided ‘procurement policies are coupled with strong sustainability criteria’.  That phrase really does ring some alarm bells in my head.  That is what desperate policy-makers have been saying about biofuels for years, and the simple fact is that it would be an enormous challenge to ensure that imports of timber were only from well-managed and sustainable sources.

Steven’s Croft biomass power station near Lockerbie. Chris Newman [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
So, as I understand it, and I may not have it all right, we are planning in the UK to have so many biomass power stations that we will need to increase our timber imports greatly to satisfy their demand.  If you burn a tree today then you are in carbon debt for years until another tree has grown to replace it, and trees take a long time to grow so you spend a long time in carbon debt.  Added to which, if that timber would have been used for construction, fencing etc then someone will be looking for non-wood products to build their house or fence and that means an increase in carbon emissions.

Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the RSPB have produced a report on this subject which seems to be backed up strongly by an unreleased EU report and the scientific opinion of the European Environment Agency on doing the sums correctly on bioenergy production.

Those mealy mouthed words from Forest Research got me slightly worried about their position on this subject.  You find lots about small-scale domestic and small industrial use of biomass on their website but you need to look quite hard to find this list of actual and proposed biomass power plants which will swamp all those local uses of biomass from UK woodland.  However, look hard enough through their website and you will also find these cautionary words from the Environment Agency ‘GHG emissions from energy generated using biomass are generally, but not always, less than from fossil fuels.‘ and ‘By 2030, biomass electricity will need to be produced using good practice to avoid emitting more GHG emissions per unit than the average for the electricity grid indicated to be necessary by the Committee on Climate Change‘.

In other words – it’s complicated (like most things are).

Clearcut near Franklin, Virginia. photo: Dogwood alliance

The closer we get to using ‘waste’ as the biomass from which to produce electricity, the better. There really are benefits to be had from greater management of our own woodlands in terms of woodland wildlife, carbon savings and a boost to the rural economy.  But the closer we get to very large industrial-scale biomass power stations the closer we get to depending on the good management of others, who supply the fuel to us, for any hope that there are real carbon savings and we then depend on their management to determine any wildlife benefits or losses.  Public policy is a very blunt instrument and almost always has unintended consequences.  when we are dealing with land use changes far from our shores then public policy finds it difficult to cope.

The complexity of these issues keeps bringing me back to the need for us to reduce our energy consumption being a very high priority.


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35 Replies to “Biomass – dirtier than coal?”

  1. As you say, this is a complicated issue, but how about looking at it the other way around? Where from a woodland management point of view harvesting of wood makes sense, then a biomass plant may be in order. The High Weald AONB in Kent and Sussex has encouraged the creation of small-scale biomass plants for this reason. When viewed from this angle biomass should be able to take its place among other renewable sources without causing environmental damage. The danger with any renewable (or other) resource is that sweeping policies miss local variations in landscape, conservation value and other characteristics. In additioning to championing reduction of energy usage, conservation organisations should adopt a policy of "the right renewable resource, in the right place".

  2. Read the meter the other day and phoned it in. Managed to get a £590 pay back just by using less!! Happy days!!

  3. I've now looked at the post and a couple of the links three times now, but still left scratching my head. Here's my confusion, 1) Why are/would the Americans be happy to send wood for our biomass stations, surley they would want it for there own stations, if they build them, plus no-one has counted the carbon footprint of bringing theses trees from around Europe/Canada/USA and Russia nor calculated the cost of making sure no foreign bugs or fungi is imported on these trees 2) I was under the impression that biomass stations were going to be for food waste and not timber etc or have I been misinformed? 3) Where will these stations be situated as when planning permission is applied for there is always massive public objections, Kings Lynn recyling/burning station springs to mind, despite the number of jobs created for those living nearby. So extra cost involved in planning applications/judgements. Next time I hear someone from "rural" UK moan about the lack of investment/jobs and economy of "rural" Britain, I might be tempted to point of the NIMBY's preventing investment in the countryside. 4) I was always under the impression that in wooldands, branches etc should be left on the ground to rot as it's better for the micro-enviroment etc. What I find interesting though Mark is people are as we speak carrying out surveys in the UK for new sources of coal, so maybe coal fired stations are the governments current thinking?
    Finally if they want trees to burn in biomass stations, can't they start with all the non-native trees that have been planted in woodland and all them horrible Lleylandi fir trees!

  4. Nice to have the chance to comment when the subject is FORESTRY rather than having to drag it round (I did read that blog, Mark, and make no apologies - as you wouldn't if the boot were on the other foot !)

    I had to think about this over 5 years ago in developing the (English) Government woodfuel strategy - which contains most of the necessary thinking but, because politicians don't seem to be able to tell the difference between 'energy' and 'electricity' has been widely ignored. Did you realise that 49% of our energy use is heat, little of which is provided by electricity ? That compares with 12% for transport.The expectation at the time was towards co-firing. The strategy comes to radically different conclusions:

    - the scale of our existing unmanaged woodlands matches local use far better than industrial scale assembly
    - co-firing struggles to achieve 50% efficiency - compared to 90%+ for medium scale heat
    - there's lots of other benefits: English unmanaged woodlands match 'off gas' where restricted options & low rural wages increase the risk of fuel poverty, the right woodland management could help reverse the decline in woodland birds and there's a big opportunity to switch waste wood from landfill to energy generation.

    Firing our power stations with wood shipped from the US which is solving its energy needs by fracking for gas and turning maize into ethanol (funny noone seems to have mentioned the 25% of maize diverted from food as a contributory cause of rising food prices worldwide).

    It is complex at one level - but not at another: work through the carbon consequences and the lunacy of, for example, the EU biofuels regime which RSPB campaigns against so vigorously becomes obvious - at one end, European crops like oil seed rape which consume 75% of their carbon output through inputs, especially nitrogen fertilisers, and, even worse, palm oil - contributing to rainforest destruction which accounts for roughly as much carbon as the world's transport system.

    Domestic wood is small: equivalent to 250,000 households. But as Mark points out, saving energy really should be the priority - it just doesn't suit energy companies dependant on selling more. So halve your use, and thats 1/2 a million households - and what about other options like environmentally planned tidal ? Small gains from both ends - green energy at one end, energy saving at the other, is surely the way to go.

  5. Bio security: I assume the mountains of biomass buffer stock will be bigger than the coal mountains at present power stations. In such vast quantities I am sure some insects and spores will survive and have a great chance to escape into the surrounding countryside. Who is going to inspect each shipment to clear it.
    Since councils cannot influence the source of the material maybe they could insist that the material should be kept under bio secure cover or ships only allowed to unload direct to the furnaces. Which would slow things up while sanity has a chance to arrive.
    Its going to be a brave new world.
    Bit like the mad hatters tea party.
    Another very good site

  6. Curious that your blog thus far hasn't attracted any comments, perhaps it is too complicated as you say. So I will stick my neck out with the first!
    I don't know much about renewable energies except a very general knowledge, but what I don't understand is why solar energy isn't being more utilised. We have had panels now for over a year and have been delighted with the results from a environmentally friendly and financial point. I am pleased to see there are more people installing them. But why isn't is used on a far grander scale in sunnier climes. We spent a fortnight in California and saw very few panels particularily in domestic use.
    Is it too expensive too use commercially. Why aren't they used in all new build, perhaps it should be part of planning regs? If the market was bigger surely the price would fall.
    I am being too simplistic Mark and naive?

  7. Mark - I'd agree completely that it's a good idea to be more energy efficient, and we have tried this as a family in our own lives. But even this is not as simple as it looks. With energy, nothing ever is.

    Imagine I try my best to cut my energy use, and I save £50 on my utility bill. What do I do with that money? I could pay down debt, or buy myself lots of new bird books (including "Fighting for Birds", of course!!!), or I could save up for the holiday of a lifetime in Australia. Each of these has a different carbon cost. It's possible to conceive of a situation where increasing our domestic energy efficiency could result in us actually using more energy, not less. This phenomenon seems to operate at different scales, from the personal to the national, where it is referred to variously as the Rebound Effect, the Jevon's Paradox or the Khazzoom Brookes Postulate. All this seems to be the subject of heated debate amongst economists, as to whether these theoretical effects can be observed in the real world. I'm nowhere near qualified to judge who is right. But it seems to me that some unintended consequences of energy efficiency are at least possible.

    The only way to guarantee to avoid this (that I can see) would be to have rising energy costs, which would absorb the surplus money, and prevent it being reinvested in the use of more energy. But that would disproportionately affect the poor, so that is a non-starter. You only have to look at the fuss over energy bills at present to see that it would be a brave politician to suggest this.

    This isn't an argument against energy efficiency. I'm just saying that it may not yield all the carbon savings we expect. Personally, I think a 'press all the buttons at once' approach is the only viable option, with renewables, nuclear and energy efficiency each having an appropriate role. However, with the world seemingly resigned to a temperature rise above 2 degrees, I wonder if the battle is already lost?

  8. Mark - I couldn't agree more that failing to account for carbon debt is a risky strategy. The sad truth is that the current policy framework is due to drive a massive increase in the imports of woody biomass - a reality that the Government and industry both seem reluctant to face up to. Because carbon accounting remains flawed, this biomass could easily contribute to increases in greenhouse gas emissions right when we need to be reducing them.

    As you say, a sustainable biomass sector is possible, but we need a shift to the use of wastes, arisings and residues from UK forestry and some careful use of domestic energy crops.

  9. I agree with you - so much of our energy policy (and many other policies) is geared towards preserving the status quo or increasing consumption, rather than considering how to tackle the issues more radically and rethinking our approach. I read your blog this morning and then got into work this morning to see Uni of Exeter is involved in this SW-focussed conference later this week: - it will be interesting to see what the outcomes are.

  10. This is an excellent article. As someone who has witnessed and read a lot about energy production, I believe we are right to question whether industrial-scale biomass can move us towards a low-carbon future.

    But there's a clear distinction which should be made between the 'big-agri', clear-felled biomass approach, with its high use of fossil fuels; and the sort of small-scale, hand-harvesting of coppice that can provide sustainable woodfuel for local use. Many reports and articles fail to make the distinction and come out with headlines that are either, "wood is as bad as coal" or "wood is the zero carbon fuel for the future". Both are gross over-simplifications and the truth is, as usual, more complex.

    As someone who uses coppiced word for fuel, that I harvest myself from my own woods, the secret is to coppice selectively ensuring that the wood removed on an annual basis is less than that which will regenerate over the same period. Correct management will ensure that a wood actually increases the amount of carbon that's being locked-up over time. This makes it sustainable. Clear-felling is a sign of short termism.

  11. I completely agree that the focus should be on carbon consumption.

    One of the key problems with the European approach to climate change is that the targets are set in terms of carbon production of each country. From an economic point of view this is the wrong variable: we should be targeting carbon consumption.

    Take the example of Britain. Between 1990 and 2005, Britain reduced its carbon emissions by more than 15%. Sounds good right? So we're leading on climate change?

    But the problem is that in the same period our carbon consumption rose by 19%. In effect, we were getting China and other less developed countries to produce carbon intensive goods on our behalf and then import them back to Europe. We are not reducing global emissions: just outsourcing our emissions production to China. (The point is made in Dieter Helm's recent book The Carbon Crunch).

    UK targets for carbon production are at best useless and arguably counterproductive as all that happens is we outsource our emissions. If there are targets, they should be for carbon consumption.

    For what it's worth, I think the solution would be to have a carbon tax, but it would have to combined with border taxes for carbon intensive goods to choke off our imports of carbon intensive goods from China and elsewhere.

    In terms of production of carbon, there are things that could be done to reduce emissions certainly and rapidly such as replacing our coal fired power stations with gas fired ones (which produce about half the carbon). This would be a much more efficient way of reducing emissions than huge subsidies for the current fairly useless renewables.

  12. Large scale biomass plants are madness. Their output is almost entirely electricity, there may be a bit of fig leaf district heating, and you only capture a third of the available energy in electricity generation. The idea that there is an environmental benefit in felling mind boggling quantities of low energy yielding 'fuel' and transporting it vast distances around the globe simply to utilise a third of its calorific value is so bonkers that it is sure to catch on.
    It is not even necessary to promulgate new energy sources to deal with our immediate problems, we waste energy at levels so unimaginable that existing technology could revolutionize our energy situation.
    It is, for example, perfectly possible to produce refrigerators which work at a fraction of the energy levels of those available in our shops, but you can't find them because people want, 'slim' ones. On a personal level I was nearly lynched when I insisted, in a previous existence, that everyone turn their computers off at the wall when they went home. It was apparently a human right to leave them on standby or even on 24/7.
    Sadly we have become energy junkies and the answer to our dependancy will be finding a new Columbia not going cold turkey.

  13. Mark,

    There are several types of biomass in the UK and types imported in that haven't been considered or commented on in the posts do far. I sit on the board of a company called AFBiomass which is a subsidiary of Anglia Farmers who are a farmer owned buying group in Norwich. Basically we source biomass both for power and other uses (livestock or bedding carrots etc. ) from UK farmers and we sit I think at no 2 in the UK in terms of volume. Our main customer is EPR Ely who run the Elean station which is the first and only UK straw fired power station. Basically straw and Miscanthus has a calorific value of around 18% depending on moisture, wood in its various forms about 22% and coal from 27% up to mid 30's depending on if it is lignite or anthracite, so agricultural waste or biomass crops can provide quite a meaningful contribution.

    As we sit right now there are two further stations planned by Eco2 and Icne Energy and one further under construction in Goole N Lincs. there is allow the Drax straw pellet plant plus a further pellet plant at Swatham which is just starting production. (straw is pelleted both to help with the economics of transport plus to allow for co-firing with coal. I'm not totally up to speed on the plants which are relying on imported biomass but there is a big plant at Immingham and one at Tilbury. Feedstock is I think imported palm husks mainly.

    The whole biomass issue is complicated and arguments on carbon and Co2 are often quoted with seemingly great authority but in my experience they tend to be very subjective. To give some examples of this the EU and Decc until recently attributed a proportion of the carbon and co2 of wheat production to the straw which was clearly a byproduct regardless of it being incorporated back into the soil or removed. This was wrong from any view point but took years to revise. The commonly misunderstood process is AD and ethanol production where I constantly hear the either/or issue of food versus fuel and the connected arguments on co2. In reality ethanol producers are the largest source of DDG,s feed to livestock and used in the food industry as the process only removes a proportion of sugars. The same is true of the rape used in biodiesel as the meal left after crushing goes back into the food chain.

    Getting back to the subject of the blog, as I managed to distract myself quite well there, large scale biomass from UK woods looks very unlikely in my view. The logistics are simply unworkable. I have met with the NT last year as they were looking at the RFO grants to install boilers running on wood chip (from their woodland) to replace oil fired. This to me seemed a very sensible approach and one I think will gain ground in the future. Pelleted wood also works well as it has better transport and handling properties. Unfortunately the UK power network is not set up for small scale CHP (central heat and power) plants; most of our power is generated in the North East and we rely on the grid system to distribute. This is totally different from say the Danish system where they are years ahead of us on CPH and biomass.

    1. After reading the blog I had been wondering about straw, given that not so long ago hundreds of thousands of tons of it were being burnt in the field every year (including by me on occasion!). Is there a reason why it is not more widely used as a fuel? Transport logistics or doesn't burn cleanly perhaps?

      1. Probably because its too valuable as a bedding material for livestock. Personally I think that far too much straw is removed these days, unless its going to be returned as FYM, its best chopped and returned to the soil. Why go to all that effort and expense to remove valuable organic matter, potash and phosphate ?

        1. Joe W (and Adam) - many years ago I visited Wallasea 'Island' in Essex and noticed huge piles of straw bales across the flat landscape. And I mean huge - several times the size of a house and quite a few of them. I asked what they were for and was told they were going to a biomass plant. That sounded good. I asked where the biomass station was and was told it was for the Elean plant at Sutton in Cambs near the Ouse Washes! That has always seemed a long way to take straw (about 100miles by road?).

  14. Think the big problem is Mark that each generation over the century's has used more energy than the previous one and while using less would be the ideal think the vast majority of population will not buy into it.Nowadays even phones seem to be plugged permanently into the mains electric and mobiles continually charged up just a couple of the small things added to the large energy used for central heating that add up to the large use of energy now as opposed to 50 years ago even.

  15. It seems madness to me if any "green" initiative is advocating importing biofuels from overseas. Even if the "feedstock" is renewable, the energy cost of importing it is not and is vulnerable to future price rises. Neither is it a secure supply.

    We should be moving to a situation where energy generation is as decentralised as possible using whatever means are to hand locally, be it hydro, tidal, wind, biomass or solar. Local communities can then cut their cloth and decide whether their energy needs require extra capacity or more conservation.

    This would give us much better energy security as we wouldn't need to import. Communities that want to take on the inevitable large scale electricity generation for large centres that cannot generate their own energy could then be appropriately compensated.

    As a postscript most food production shoulod be on the same basis.

  16. Obviously the more people there are [in the UK and/or the world] the more energy generation that will be required. This part of the debate is often ignored in research/reports/feasibility studies etc.
    The UK is also sometimes guilty of forgetting that it no longer controls a chunk of the worlds resources. Whatever we import has consequences for the country and people who sell it to us. There is not enough concern about the countries exporting natural resources and food which are often countries stuck in deepest poverty and where devastating destruction of natural habitats and species is taking place.
    I've long held the view that we won't really get close to finding a way forward on producing green or greenish energy or seriously tackling the staggering waste of energy whilst the majority of that energy is produced and supplied by profit making organisations. An electrical shop with a policy of reducing the number of electrical items it sold would be suicidal. Profit making companies are not likely to promote home or local generation schemes . If the energy companies were not for commercial profit it could be in their interest to invest in home/local generation - particularly if excess were fed into the grid and paid for. We the average consumer do not have a stake in energy - we often feel like victims. This needs to change rapidly.
    The debate on biomass is interesting and as Mark has found, not as simple as it might first seem. Our politicians do have a boring habitat of picking up on one thing and making it sound like an all round cure-all. Its just a pity they don't pick up on the potential 'in house' energy production ideas - such as wave or if current wet summers become the norm, English hydro [another vastly under considered local source of power].
    I could go on for pages - I won't!

    1. "The UK is also sometimes guilty of forgetting that it no longer controls a chunk of the worlds resources" - that's an interesting statement! The countries mentioned have modern regulatory frameworks in place and are quite capable of making their own decisions about how their resources are managed. Have we boycotted oil from the Canadian tar sands? What we might want to avoid is international nannying!

      Perhaps we should be more concerned with ensuring that our own regulatory system is fit for purpose to make sure that changes to woodland management do not see a move to a mechanised woodland monoculture? I doubt that could be guaranteed at the moment.

      As far as English (or even Welsh or Scottish for that matter) hydropower is concerned, be careful what you wish for. The environmental problems associated with that are significant and well documented.

  17. Adam,

    Straw is being used both as a pellet which is grounded up and co-fired with coal at about 9% inclusion rate or in dedicated straw fired stations.

    There are issues which make it harder to use than gas or coal. Straw is very high in chlorine, surprisingly, which is very corrosive (this effects pipe work etc and makes it especially hard to use in domestic boilers ) and the other issue is that its impossible to run a power station on 100% straw as it does not reach a high enough temperature in the furnace. Usually it's co-fired with a small level of gas.

    Transport and storage is far harder than say coal as straw has a low specific weight but this can be overcome to some extent by pellets or by only sourcing from within an economical radius of the plant. In addition to this one of our major problems is arson which limits our holding capacities and adds cost.

    As to how much straw there is available in the UK and how much power this could generate the jury is still out. The current power station at Ely uses about 220,000 tons to produce around 38mw. There is probably about 5-7 million tons of straw available in the UK in theory so you can do the maths. Obviously the livestock sector uses a considerable tonnage plus it is used as a source of organic matter when incorporated (so there is a cost and agronomic implication with widespread use for power)

    Quite where we go on this as a power policy remains to be seen but a can see the sector doubling over the next year or so but I suspect that future expansion will be less dramatic. It still has a useful role to play especially where it is combined with Miscanthus (which I think has a far sounder environmental profile and the potential to supply significant biomass on land unsuitable for mainstream crops)

    1. Thanks for the info Julian. Interesting to note that even at this early stage 38MW is bigger than any existing hydropower station in England and Wales (I'm pretty sure!) with the exception of Dinorwig in N Wales which is a bit of an oddity that recirculates the same water.

    1. It's not an area I know that much about Julian, but yes I am surprised. It will be interesting to see how it develops in the future.

  18. Adam M is right about Hydro. Exactly why humans treat running water with such casual disregard is difficult to explain. At the same time that it is finally dawning on the wider world that connectivity is vital to terrestrial conservation we are rushing to destroy the connectivity of the aquatic environment for minute predicted energy yields.

    1. There is a school of thought that says 'I want to generate low carbon power, therefore I should be able to do what I like'. The hydropower lobby is well connected, and environmental regulators are painted as the interfering dead hand of bureacracy if they attempt to constrain to protect the environment. And you are also right Ian that the yields from the vast majority of hydro schemes are pitiful - the majority measured in hundreds of Kilowatts or less rather than Megawatts

  19. Back around 1990 people were bigging-up the exciting future of short-rotation coppice as a means of producing biomass for fuel. It was pointed out that the energy needs of a city like Manchester could be met from an area of SRC similar to Dorset. So many Manchesters, so few Dorsets.

    But on a more optimistic note, it is encouraging that Wessex Water have just opened a new food waste AD facility at Avonmouth, integrated with their existing AD plant for sewage treatment. They can now extract energy from food we have and haven't eaten.

    As always we are deep in earnest debate without mentioning the elephant - although Stella nearly did.

  20. Biofuelwatch has been campaigning against the use of woodfuel and bioliquids for power generation for some years now, and it is great to see this subject going mainstream.

    At the heart of the issue is policymakers’ mistaken view that ‘biogenic’ emissions can be assumed to be zero. Essentially the theory is that the biomass carbon you burn will be sequestered from the atmosphere by someone else growing sufficient plant material, at another place and at another time. This is highly dubious carbon accounting.

    Where this gets particularly worrying is in power generation, because of the scale. UK Government sees biomass electricity as a key part of our low carbon transition, encouraging its expansion meanwhile acknowledging that indigenous supplies are inadequate. It openly encourages large scale imports of wood pellets and wood chips as fuel. Since April 2009, the UK has had a financial support scheme for renewable electricity that rewards operators of solid biomass power stations with about £50 per MWh. That’s an uplift of about 120% on top of the wholesale price of electricity.

    As a consequence there are now many proposals and schemes in the planning system for medium to large size biomass electricity-only power stations, and more recently for the conversion of coal power stations like Tilbury and Drax to burn wood. With a total generating capacity of nearly 5GW, and an annual consumption of tens of millions of tonnes of fuel - mostly imported wood pellets. The demand swamps the UK's current and potential production of timber. Were all these power stations to come on line, the annual ‘subsidy’ - paid for by all UK electricity consumers to the operators - would be around £2.5bn per year. Over 25 years, we're getting to the cost level of Trident.

    Nearly all the proposals are for locations close to ports or even in ports to facilitate imports. Most of these power stations have very poor overall efficiencies. The guideline figure used by DECC is a mere 25%. The best coal-fired power stations can achieve 45%, Combined Cycle Gas Turbines over 50%. For each 100 trees cut down, only about 20 actually produce electricity at the point of use when you factor in the energy used to produce the pellets and transport them to the UK.

    In order to qualify for financial support, biomass power stations have to meet a few criteria dealing with ‘Carbon and Sustainability’. On Carbon, the intention from 2013 is that they will have to show a carbon saving of at least 60% relative to a benchmark comparator of EU-wide fossil electricity. On the face of it that sounds impressive. But the absolute carbon intensity required of biomass electricity is going to be 285 kgCO2/MWh – this is really only a 50% saving on existing UK grid electricity and far exceeds the target (suggested by the Committee on Climate Change) for overall UK grid electricity in 2030 to be just 50 kgCO2/MWh.

    But the crunch is that the official methodology for calculating carbon intensity for biomass electricity assumes that all smokestack emissions are sequestered and can therefore be written down to zero. Even if the required replacement trees were planted and brought to maturity, every year we will be creating a carbon debt by burning more of the standing trees while the new trees grow. As biomass consumption expands year on year, the carbon debt gets bigger and the rate of replanting needs to increase to have any chance of eventually paying it back. Like a loan shark operation.

    On ‘Sustainability’, the criteria to be passed in order to qualify for subsidies are simply inadequate. No land use standards will be introduced as part of the sustainability criteria to prevent the degradation or conversion of natural forests to plantations. DECC instead proposes to extend the Government’s Sustainable Wood Procurement Policy to biomass. This means that any wood consignment of which 70% is certified by the FSC or PEFC as coming from a ‘sustainably managed’ forest or (or tree plantation) would classify as sustainable. There is clear evidence that wood certified by the FSC and PEFC has been linked with illegal logging, clear-cutting of old-growth forests, and from plantations associated with mass evictions and other human rights abuses. For more information on this, please read Biofuelwatch’s recent report, "Sustainable Biomass - A Modern Myth" at

    Current UK and EU policy on biomass electricity is damaging our slim chances of reducing current carbon emissions fast enough. Consumers are also being conned into paying more for ‘green electricity’ which in reality is as damaging for the climate as burning coal. And now, coal fired power stations which would otherwise be shut down because they are so heavily polluting, have a chance of having their lifespans extended through burning biomass alongside the coal, as we have seen as RWE plans to covert 750MW of capacity at Tilbury B coal fired power station to burning biomass.

    RSPB and Friends of the Earth are right to campaign on this misguided policy, simply intended to help the UK meet its 2020 renewable energy target as cheaply as possible, while exporting the consequences.

    Reducing energy consumption has to be our priority - not switching to energy from wood.

    1. "Reducing energy consumption"

      If people would stop driving around trainspotting we'd all feel the benefit

  21. Robert

    That's all very well just lumping in all biomass as one carbon calculation but its just wrong. In your efforts to campaign to limit wood imports you paint a massively oversimplified theory and in order not to confuse your message I suspect.

    Biomass from home grown Miscanthus and crop residues just doesn't fit in your argument.

    I suppose we will all just have to carry on with oil, coal and gas since biomass is so bad ?

  22. Julian,

    Yes, biomass from home grown Miscanthus and crop residues doesn't appear in my argument - because the threat we are opposing comes from burning imported wood pellets, and none of the huge coal power station conversions like TIbury and Drax will make much if any use of Miscanthus or local crop residues.

    We are campaigning against what is actually happening, and not being distracted by the industry propaganda trying to suggest that locally-supplied energy crops and residues will play a significant role. With RWE opening a wood pellet production facility in Georgia, and shipping in massive tankers to the dockside at Tilbury, it is obvious where their supplies are coming from.

    Where are the environmental and biodiversity campaigners supporting Miscanthus in this country? I need to be convinced that a dense monoculture crop of an introduced species harvested mechanically every year is a positive step for biodiversity and birdlife in the UK. And that we can afford to (or choose to?) give up the productive land to grow enough energy crops in this country to make a significant contribution to the tens of millions of tonnes expected to be burnt each year.

    What is more likely to happen with bioenergy is that woodfuel from the natural and planted forests in temperate regions is supplemented and eventually largely replaced by pelleted biomass from fast growing energy crops like Eucalyptus and Acacia grown in tropical and sub-tropical regions. Echoing the move of paper and pulp production. The problems caused by Eucalyptus in South America are well documented, for example see World Rainforest Movement .

    And no I am not advocating carrying on with fossil fuels. We have to slow our use of them dramatically since they - like biomass - all produce carbon emissions. We have to cut energy use and waste, so that the least damaging forms of energy - in my view wind, solar and marine, with innovative forms of energy storage, can deliver as close to 100% of demand. Solar and on-shore wind farms in the UK give a much higher yield of electricity per ha than even Miscanthus. It is criminal surely to allocate food-growing land in this country to energy crops and thereby increase the UK's demand for imported food?

    Our dash for bioenergy is predicated on consumption-as-usual with the (false) promise that a large part of our fortunate legacy of concentrated solar energy, ie fossil fuels laid down over 100's of millions of years, can be replaced with solar energy captured by today's biomass.

  23. Robert,

    Sorry I just don't get what your suggestion is as an alternative as it seems that every possible solution seems to have something wrong with it in your view ?

    I quite see your point about massive imports of wood chip or pellets from forestry but that's not going to happen is it as there is a whole range of biomass products out there, some 280 different traded types from memory I think and they can't all be bad. RWP products that used to go to landfill is just one example or palm husks is another main type which is a byproduct of palm oil (I suppose you hate that as well).

    My main objection to your total anti biomass view is that you can't treat the subject in such an oversimplified way and I despaired when you say that Miscanthus is bad as its a mono crop (don't worry about the fact that it increase soil organic matter and has zero nitrous oxide emissions).

    I think this blog is really over now so I suppose we had better agree to disagree as they say but I feel all these arguments are slightly irrelevant really. Our power strategy is way behind Europe and since we never get any decent policy in place I wouldn't worry too much. It's coal and gas for us I'm afraid and biomass, wind and AD are just sideshows in reality. Even the French have made us into fools, they won't be cutting down trees as they are 78% nuclear and have some if the lowest emissions in Europe (maybe we shouldn't have listened to all those single issue anti nuclear campaigners twenty years ago, looks as if they might have oversimplified the argument at the time)


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