Power station conversion from coal to woodchip is not sustainable

Posted: May 28, 2013 by tallbloke in Energy, flames

powerWOODFrom the Wall Street Journal

WINDSOR, N.C.—Loggers here are clear-cutting a wetland forest with decades-old trees.

The U.S. logging industry is seeing a rejuvenation, thanks in part of Europe’s efforts to seek out green fuel and move away from coal. Ianthe Dugan explains. Photo: Getty Images.

Behind the move: an environmental push.

The push isn’t in North Carolina but in Europe, where governments are trying to reduce fossil-fuel use and carbon-dioxide emissions. Under pressure, some of the Continent’s coal-burning power plants are switching to wood.

But Europe doesn’t have enough forests to chop for fuel, and in those it does have, many restrictions apply. So Europe’s power plants are devouring wood from the U.S., where forests are bigger and restrictions fewer.

This dynamic is bringing jobs to some American communities hard hit by mill closures. It is also upsetting conservationists, who say cutting forests for power is hardly an environmental plus.

On a hot Tuesday along North Carolina’s Roanoke River, crews were cutting the trees in a swampy 81-acre parcel, including towering tupelos. While many of the trunks went for lumber, the limbs and the smaller trees were loaded on trucks headed to a mill 30 miles away, to be ground up, compressed into pellets and put on ships to Europe.

“The logging industry around here was dead a few years ago,” said Paul Burby, owner of a firm called Carolina East Forest Products that hired subcontractors to cut the trees after paying a landowner for rights. “Now that Europe is using all these pellets, we can barely keep up.”

The logging is perfectly legal in North Carolina and generally so elsewhere in the U.S. South. In much of Europe, it wouldn’t be.

The U.K., for example, requires loggers to get permits for any large-scale tree-cutting. They must leave buffers of standing trees along wetlands, and they generally can’t clear-cut wetlands unless the purpose is to restore habitat that was altered by tree planting, said a spokesman for the U.K. Forestry Commission.

Italy and Lithuania make some areas off-limits for clear-cutting, meaning cutting all of the trees in an area rather than selectively taking the mature ones. Switzerland and Slovenia completely prohibit clear-cutting. It is a common logging practice in the U.S.

U.S. wood thus allows EU countries to skirt Europe’s environmental rules on logging but meet its environmental rules on energy.

Read the rest here

  1. clivebest says:

    Converting DRAX coal power station to burn US imported wood chips is the biggest act of political lunacy in the last 30 years. It may in the process enrich Lord Snooty and his pals, but for the rest of us it turns the clock back to a feudal era. Why are there no forests left in Europe ? Strangely enough from neolithic times onwards we cut them all down to keep warm and make shelter.

  2. J Martin says:

    One possible outcome will be that Drax, once converted to wood chips will one day suddenly come to a grinding halt when environmentalists see the devastation that such extreme logging brings to the US countryside. At which point even more money will have to be spent converting Drax back to coal burning once more.

  3. Kon Dealer says:

    I’m sure this logging is “sustainable”……….after all it is for a good cause.

  4. Joe Public says:

    But the Beeb’s Roger Harrabin was unquestioning when he reported Drax would source unwanted offcuts from the timber industry, mainly in the Americas, as its primary fuel. Nearly seven million tonnes of plant material a year!!


  5. Doug Proctor says:

    Earlier we determined that full replacement of coal at Drax was not logistically feasible due to the lower physical and energy density of wood chips vs coal, i.e. they cannot run enough trains through Drax on a daily basis to run the plant at full capacity (nor store on-site enough for security of full power capability through supply interruptions). The probability of insufficient “waste” chips was also deemed probable, and this followup article confirms that “new” sources of wood chip have to be in the supply mix.

    The situation now suggests that a number of coal-burning facilities are going to be run on a part-time basis. Drax is just the headline plant. Look to the ports where the American ships are going and going to go: this will tell you which plants are likely to be partially mothballed.

    The government may be hedging its bet on alternative energy supplies. Lower the output from a number of coal-burning plants to reduce CO2 emissions as per EU “requirements” or to reduce carbon credit purchases elsewhere, but not leave the country without the ability to quickly restart the coal-fired power plants.

    The contract length of the wood chips or pulp wood “would” also be telling: a 20-year contract is serious, a 5-year contract would be a test project.

    Drax and others will have to be replaced in the energy grid with a scenario as above. If they can’t be, you can bet that coal will come back, one shuttle at a time, overriding green objections due to “the national interest” but, of course, only for a “limited” time.

    Like income taxes.

  6. Bob Koss says:

    If I understand this correctly, this is the path. It’s woods to the mill, mill to the dock, cross the ocean to the dock, dock to the plant.

    Unless they are using exclusively nuclear transportation, how much co2 can they be saving?

  7. You Brits are barmy. Buying expensive foreign wood chips instead of your abundant coal.

    Keep it up as long as you can. Poor folks in the Carolinas are getting much needed employment. Damn shame that this “Renewable” resource will soon peter out.

  8. clivebest,

    What happened to the European forests?

    As you say most of them were burned for fuel so that the cleared area could be used for arable crops. Don’t forget that in England the really good stuff (Quercus Robur) was used to build the Royal Navy that ruled the world for a couple of centuries.

  9. oldbrew says:

    @ gallopingcamel

    The Bavarian forest hasn’t been decimated yet. Great hiking country.

    ‘The national park was expanded to 24.000 hectare on August 1, 1997 and Europe’s largest nature reserve arose in Eastern Bavaria. Along with the Czech national park Sumava, landscape of the year 1999/2000, it forms Europe’s largest conservation project.’

  10. clivebest says:

    The germans aren’t stupid.

    “While the UK government has implemented various policies that effect and guide the new-build of coal-powered stations (most notably a policy of no new coal without carbon capture and storage), other countries, like Germany, have no specific decarbonisation strategy for the power sector as such and several 10 new coal and lignite stations are currently under construction.” – DECC report May 2013.

    The Dutch have 3 more under construction. They gave up on their experiment to convert one to burning wood chips after it caught fire !

  11. fjpickett says:

    I wonder if emails from Drax management still exhort recipients to conserve trees by not printing them? 🙂

  12. Brian H says:

    That Bavarian forest amounts to <400 sq. miles. 20 x 20. Drop it in Northern Ontario, and it would get lost.

  13. oldbrew says:

    @ Brian H

    No doubt, but the forest itself is a lot bigger than the national park that’s inside it, probably over 100 miles long. The Czech NP that backs on to it is nearly 3 times the size of the German one too.

    Wikipedia says:
    ‘A part of the Bavarian Forest belongs to the Bavarian Forest National Park (Nationalpark Bayerischer Wald) (240 km²), established in 1970 as the first national park in Germany. Another 3,008 km² belong to the Bavarian Forest Nature Park (Naturpark Bayerischer Wald), established 1967, and 1738 km² to the Eastern Bavarian Forest Nature Park (Naturpark Oberer Bayerischer Wald), established 1965. The Bavarian Forest is a remnant of the Hercynian Forest that stretched across southern Germania in Roman times. It is the largest protected forest area in central Europe.’

  14. EB.Nalton says:

    On 15 Sept 2011 the European Environment Agency Scientific Committee issued a statement to correct the false declaration by UNEP/UNFCC that burning biomass is carbon neutral.Our Marxist Govt. ignored this for the obvious ideological reasons.The destruction and burning of trees is a direct attack on biodiversity and the health of our planet,is plainly not sustainable,and should be stopped at once.Even the EU are having to rethink this foolish ,and criminal act of destruction.See also Tim Searchinger et al.2010.