The stupidity of mass burning of biomass to replace coal.

From the Claverton Gmail threads:

Dear all,

David Weight kindly copied me in to this thread. I hope you don’t mind me adding my thoughts. I am only going to comment on the use of biomass for electricity-only, and not the question of DH and or CHP. My position is that UK, EU and US policy makers are wrong to be supporting new big-biomass, enhanced co-firing and full coal conversion (Tilbury and Ironbridge for example in the UK). The main problem is that burning wood to displace coal does not reduce atmospheric carbon emissions in the short term, in fact in many cases it increases them. (because of lower conversion efficiency). Only after a period of many years – several decades if boreal forests are used – would biomass re-growth take up the smokestack carbon emissions from burning wood. And that’s if re-growth does actually happen and is additional to growth that would have happened under the do-nothing alternative. With the urgent need to reduce emissions and ideally atmospheric CO2 levels this decade, we should not be building more combustion systems or keeping alive old ones where they only become ‘carbon neutral’ decades into the future. Especially facilities with conversion efficiencies in the 20s and 30s. Fuel supplies for developments like Tilbury, Ironbridge, and Forth Energy in Scotland are going to come from existing forests and plantations, not exotic new schemes in the Sahara. The US timber industry for example is very interested in becoming a major player in global biomass because much of their old paper/pulp industry has emigrated to S America and Asia, and they consequently believe they have capacity to increase cutting rates. Financiers will not fund a new UK biomass power station with the promise of a future development of energy crops as its fuel source. They want hard evidence that fuel supplies will be available day one and reliable throughout the project life.  A well-documented consequence of paper/pulp production in S. America is the emergence of ‘green desert’ plantations of fast- growing non-native tree species like eucalyptus and the consequent displacement of communities and biodiversity. World Rainforest Movement in Uruguay chart the problems this is causing. At Ironbridge,  E.On has signed an agreement with Enviva for sourcing large quantities of wood pellets from the southern US.  Enviva are investing in new pellets plants in North Carolina and Virginia.  Enviva’s wood pellets are certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).   Similarly, RWE has built a pellet production plant in Georgia – capacity 750,000 tonnes pa – to supply Tilbury and is using SFI certification to label the output as sustainable. The SFI has been condemned as industry greenwashing by many NGOs.  According to Greenpeace, for example: “The SFI standard does not address social issues, particularly in terms of indigenous peoples’ rights, and it is also weak with regard to most ecological issues.  Consequently, SFI-certified companies continue to log old-growth and endangered forests, destroy the habitat of rare and endangered species and replace natural forest with plantations”  ( ).   Other NGO reports about the SFI can be accessed at And Carbon impacts: A new study “Biomass Supply and Carbon Accounting for Southeastern Forests” has just been published by the Southern Environmental Law Centre in partnership with the Biomass Energy Resource Centre, Forest Guild and the National Wildlife Federation According to this study, the carbon impact of electricity from wood taken from SE US forests will be worse than that of fossil fuel alternatives for 35-50 years.  Future climate change impacts on forests are beyond the scope of this study but there are many warnings that rapid warming is already leading to forest die-back and much more intense and frequent droughts, including in the southern US so the long-term climate impact may be even worse than predicted. Other studies have also assessed the biomass carbon debt as ranging from decades to over 100 years. If wood electricity is being used to displace only wind or solar or marine or hydro, the carbon debt is much longer. This carbon debt is not factored into the consuming country’s carbon account, allowing RWE to say for example that burning wood pellets at Tilbury gives at least a 70% saving over coal. Which still means their emissions will be approximately 250kg per MWh which is higher than the threshold of 200 recommended by the Committee on Climate Change in their December 2011 Bioenergy Review. And way higher than the figure of 80? CCC were suggesting should be the UK grid average in 2030.  regards Robert PalgraveBiofuelwatch

One comment on “The stupidity of mass burning of biomass to replace coal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.