The use of wood for electricity generation and heat in modern technologies has grown rapidly in recent years. For its supporters, it represents a relatively cheap and flexible way of supplying renewable energy, with benefits to the global climate and to forest industries. To its critics, it can release more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere than the fossil fuels it replaces, and threatens the maintenance of natural forests and the biodiversity that depends on them. 1
Wood pellets are claimed to be carbon-neutral partly because the forests from which they come are replanted. New trees would eventually absorb as much carbon as was emitted when mature trees were harvested and burned. However, this process could take centuries—too late to contribute to preventing climate change over coming decades.
Duncan Brack adds this important observation, “Overall while some instances of biomass energy use may result in lower life-cycle emissions than fossil fuels, in most circumstances, comparing technologies of similar ages, the use of woody biomass for energy will release higher levels of emissions than coal and considerably higher levels than gas.” 1
Britain is wasting hundreds of millions of pounds subsidizing power stations to burn American wood pellets that do more harm to the climate than the coal they replaced. Chopping down trees and transporting wood across the Atlantic Ocean to feed power stations produces more greenhouse gases than much cheaper coal. 2
This is the result of the rush to meet EU renewable energy targets which resulted in ministers making the false assumption that burning trees was carbon-neutral.
Drax, Britain’s biggest power station, received more than 450 million pounds in subsidies in 2015 for burning biomass, which was mostly American wood pellets. A report by Duncan Brack says that the government’s assessment of the impact on the climate of switching from coal to wood pellets is flawed because it ignores emissions from burning pellets in power stations. 3
Further, as Drax admits, to generate nearly the same amount of power from wood as it does form coal will cost between two and three times as much, meaning that its fuel costs will double or triple—so that the only thing to make this possible will be a massive subsidy, which will eventually be worth over 1 billion pounds a year. 4
Another report covers protected forests which are being indiscriminately felled across Europe to meet the EU’s renewable energy targets. The conservation group Birdlife found logging taking place in conservation zones and riverside parks. 5
Up to 65% of Europe’s renewable output currently comes from bioenergy involving fuels such as wood pellets and chips, rather than wind and solar power. Bioenergy fuels are supposed to be harvested from residue such as forest waste, but under current legislation, European bioenergy plants do not have to produce evidence that their wood products have been sustainably sourced.
With tongue-in-cheek, Joanne Nova says, “The climate change has now moved on to arguing whether trees are renewable. If it takes 200 years to grow a tree back, and you believe the models are 97% wrong, oceans might boil before the carbon is back in the tree.” 6
Another factor to consider is that wood burning makes smoke and wood is 1,000 times more susceptible to spontaneous combustion than coal. There have been several disastrous fires in plants that converted to biomass burning. 7
As The Economist notes. “In short, the EU has created a subsidy which costs a packet, probably does not reduce carbon emissions, and does not encourage new energy technologies.” 8
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