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).
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.
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).
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.