UK’s Biomass revolution feeling the heat

Posted: February 22, 2015 by Andrew in Energy

imageThe ever increasing appetite for wood pellets, most notably for the Drax powerstation, from the United States has recieved some unwanted attention from several Environmental groups and the EPA. This has resulted in the Secretary of State Ed Davey agreeing to meet with the environmental groups to explain why they are wrong.

As part of the UK’s energy revolution and the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s (DECC) efforts to save the world from “Carbon Pollution”, the use of biomass has rocketed. According to Platts in July last year the UK imported 455,429 metric Tonnes of wood pellets, up 78% year on year. The largest supplier being the United States at 286 mt.

Inconveniently not all U.S. environmental groups support the efforts of DECC. Geographical reported on a 50,000 strong petition organised by the Dogwood Alliance, a U.S. NGO. More recently the United States Environment Protection Agency (E.P.A.) have taken an interest. As part of the EPA’s own Clean Power Plan, it is assessing the use of biomass in the U.S. On January 30th the EPA met with representatives of Drax powerstation to examine the powerstation’s increased use of biomass. In a presentation to journalists Drax said “Increasingly aggressive but misinformed environment NGO campaigns” were among the company’s “key supply chain development issues”

EE Publishing reports that on February 5th  Secretary of State (DECC) Ed Davey met with representatives of environmental groups including the National Resources Defence Council and the Dogwood Alliance both opposed to wood energy. Part of the objection is that natural forest which is full of biodiversity, would be replaced by farmed monocultures. Their campaign bolstered by a letter from 78 leading scientists to the EPA challenging the Carbon math and warning the agency not to repeat the EU’s mistake.

Matt Willey, Corporate Communications manager for Drax, insists that Drax is not leading deforestation because the company uses low value trees and cuttings to manufacture pellets. Willey cited a recent report that concluded that increased pellet demand would result in growth not depletion of US forest area.

Meanwhile the European Union (EU) is to investigate the UK’s subsidy support for the Lynemouth powerstation’s biomass conversion. Biomass Magazine says that the EU investigation is to ensure that the UK taxpayers money is not used as overcompensation and assess whether the positive environmental effects of the conversion, outweigh potential competition distortions. The Lynemouth facility would have the capacity to generate 420MW of electricity from wood pellets.

It would appear that saving the world is not popular with everyone.

  1. I think you left out a few zeros in the imports from USA. It would be interesting to know the actual energy production from the use of the wood pellets. I may be wrong but I think a 500MW power station use about 500,000 t/a of good quality black coal. So maybe 480,000 t wood pellets might give about 250MW

  2. Andrew says:


    The Platts article states the figure is for July 2014 alone.

  3. oldbrew says:

    The 78 scientists say: ‘as EPA itself acknowledges, burning biomass degrades facility efficiency and increases day-to-day emissions over emissions when fossil fuels are burned alone.’

    They’re going to need to grow an enormous amount of trees in a hurry to get ahead of the ‘carbon game’ as Drax and others spew out INCREASED CO2 levels.

  4. When I did the order of magnitude calculations on Drax converting completely to wood-fired, I remeber oming up with a figure of 7 million acres of forests being required to sustainably feed the Drax. That’s all the trees from that area; not just the “rubbish”.

    There’s more than just a matter of monoculture. The “rubbish” that’s normally left to rot refreshes trace nutrients in the soil. Shipping the stuff to another continent won’t; unless the ash is sent back and distributed.

  5. jim says:

    But monoculture is good at sustainable two or three person jobs. Plus the 10year lag where the field is unusable and regrowth has to occur, plus that means at least 10 times that space needed to keep the home fires burning. You cannot help but wonder “what dolt dreamed that up”. Unsustainable from the git go.

  6. Bob Greene says:

    The major wood products companies have been planting and harvesting trees in the US since at least the early 1940’s. From that standpoint, trees are a renewable resource. It makes the “recycle paper, save a tree” stuff rather silly since the tree they saved was grown to make paper. I haven’t seen anyone come up with us being able to grow enough trees to replace coal or a real life cycle “cahbahn” analysis of making wood pellets in the US being carbon friendly. Now the enviro’s are coming out against it, but those folks are against burning anything.

  7. oldbrew says:

    ‘An environmental impact assessment of exported wood pellets, by the Department of Chemical and Mineral Engineering, University of Bologna, Italy and the Clean Energy Research Centre, at the University of British Columbia, published in 2009, concluded that the energy consumed to ship Canadian wood pellets from Vancouver to Stockholm (15,500 km via the Panama Canal), is about 14% of the total energy content of the wood pellets

    Worse still… ‘If the pellets are made directly from forest material, it takes up to 18% of the energy to dry the wood and additional 8% for transportation and manufacturing energy.’

  8. Bob Weber says:

    Ravaging wholesale North American forests and transporting the resulting wood pellets across the Atlantic is absolutely going to become increasingly “unsustainable” as time goes on, especially as transportation costs go up.

    I’ve been in the wood business since 1998 here in Northern Michigan, not so much in the last three due to “science” calling, and I’ve seen major changes in the wood market that are going against the interests of the consumer, a situation very few consumers are really aware of.

    It always comes down to supply and demand, and transportation costs. No one selling wood can afford to transport wood very far if the customer isn’t willing to overtly pay the freight. If you tell someone buying a load of wood they’ll have to pay extra for delivery, most will cheapskate out of the deal even if they want the wood, reducing the market(s) to local deliveries only, as it becomes uneconomical to work beyond the profitable range.

    So it is perplexing to think how much Brits are willing to pay for trans-Atlantic transportation costs on top of the cost of the wood itself. Who is subsidizing this? What happens to the price when the subsidies end?

    On the supply issue, in Michigan peak timber occured in 2013, according to the MI DNR official I spoke to in 2011.

    More people are now using outdoor “boilers” that need much more wood overall than indoor fireplaces, and as such, wood producers who used to leave the treetops from timber harvests behind as they went on to the next job, treetops that many firewood producers would use as their resource, are no longer leaving those treetops behind, reducing the usable wood supply for indoor burners, which is now having its effect on prices and quality of wood.

    Since more wood producers are now transporting their “pulpcord” (boiler wood) downstate Michigan, the upper Michigan forests are being depleted more rapidly than the local demand would otherwise require. So now it’s harder for local suppliers/burners to find dry enough wood, as most wood now is sold green or near green, increasing the very real risk of indoor fires from creasoted chimney pipes that are caused by burning green wood. It happens all over. People’s houses are burning down left and right because the people aren’t getting dry wood, or they fail to buy it early enough for it to dry in time.

    The US EPA has new regulations requiring new woodstoves sold in the US to meet higher (finer) particulate standards, driving up replacement/new installation costs. These new stoves are premised on the idea of people burning wood of a certain dryness too in order to achieve the desired particulate levels – dry wood already becoming a problem by itself as previously mentioned.

    Local stores are already currently having problems keeping a sufficient supply of wood pellets on hand for area customers, and there’s still several more months of cold weather ahead this winter.

    The comment, “increased pellet demand would result in growth not depletion of US forest area” I think is disingenuous. The “growth” only happens after the cut, obviously, so more cutting will clearly mean more “growth” as well as depletion. The statement reduces to rhetorical posturing. There has never been a situation before to compare to in order to make the claim that our forests won’t be “depleted” as this goes on. There will be a breakeven point down the road.

    Using fast-growth low-energy-density woods such as aspen is common, and those trees do grow faster than the better quality high-energy dense woods such as maples and oaks. So we’re trading high-quality low-growth rate forests now for low-quality fast-growth rate forests.

    The largest local wood producer in my area purchases timber lands on credit much of the time, then strips the forests completely down to stumps only, and then will let the bank(s) take the property(s) back in foreclosure, devoid of value, and onward they go to the next forest. I think that practice is called “asset-stripping”. Not all producers behave this way.

    Every single forest I’ve seen that was clearcut will take a generation or two to return to productivity again, so the idea that people can asset-strip their way to sustainable practices is absurd in the long run, unless they think the people are going to allow this to go on until there are no forests left to strip. So many forests are off limits too, public and private. Of course history is replete with examples were people did that, ultimately leading to their own cultural demise.

    Using all that diesel fuel to mow down the forests and grind the wood up so it can be made into pellets, and then using all that fuel to transport the pellets overseas is wasteful, IMHO, and cannot be sustained without major subsidies.

    The problem is since all these contracts have been made, what will change the situation? What company will decide it’s not worth it when it all looks so “green” all the way to the bank?

    I believe sustainable development is “what the market will bear”, not what bureaucrats say it should be or manipulate it to be. The day is coming when the market will not bear these destructive practices, and the fallout will not be pretty. Those who rely on wood pellets to stay warm will eventually be frozen out by lack of supply and high costs. Who knows when that day will happen, perhaps a decade from now, or less.

    Locals turned out for and against a major wood-fired power plant suggested for our area a few years ago, and the people here in N. Michigan wisely opted to not do it. Perhaps Brits should do the same.

  9. Doug Proctor says:

    The pea to watch for is the subsidization number being reviewed. It cannot be just for conversion. At a minimum there will be subsidies during the initial energy production stages as processes and costs are determined and reduced. Thereafter subsidies may be required to make the biomass station economically equal to coal use: as a private enterprise, the owners will not willingly run a non-equally profitable business unit. The shareholders would sue for a failure of fiduciary responsibility.

    Has anyone reviewed subsidization of DRAX since it has been in operation?

  10. J Martin says:

    If 40% of the energy in the wood is used to harvest, dry, process, transport it and if it has half the energy density of coal then they will have to ship twice as much wood as coal. It seems possible that all the oil and electricity used in providing Drax with wood pellets will exceed the co2 emissions of just burning coal at Drax.

    And now inevitably opposition to the rape of the US forests is beginning to grow and why might bring an embarrassing and well deserved halt to the whole nonsense.

    It would seem the UK politicians did not do their homework and did not think this through.

  11. oldbrew says:

    JM: ‘It would seem the UK politicians did not do their homework and did not think this through’

    No change there then when it comes to energy policy. Just bow to Brussels and throw money at anything lobbyists claim is ‘green’ and/or has ‘bio’ attached to it. No brains required.

    Latest proposed energy splurge – if it gets the nod – is ‘appalling value for money’…

  12. hunter says:

    May I attempt to clarify that headline?
    Try this:
    “UK’s Biomass Scam Feeling the Heat”
    There, all better.

  13. How can the politicians be so, so stupid to go ahead with such idiotic policies?

  14. oldbrew says:

    Adrian: would it be too cynical to suspect financial incentive somewhere along the way?

  15. ivan says:

    Adrian, it is called ‘fat brown envalope lobbying’, which means that they don’t have to think, just do.

  16. Phantomsby says:

    Remember that convicted criminal Chris Huhne is an advisor to an American bio-fuel company so I sincerely hope that he will feel some heat…

  17. michael hart says:

    Looks like it’s double schadenfreude all round. I’ve heard Russia has more trees than you can shake a stick at. Perhaps if they asked Mr Putin nicely…

  18. Rog , I have sent some commentary about Antarctic Sea Ice that is not being posted. Could you look into this to see why? Thanks

  19. Graeme No.3 says:

    No politician accepts fat brown envelopes. They expect the ‘donation’ to be gift wrapped.

  20. Power Grab says:

    They always say “follow the money.” In this case, I keep wondering how influential the transportation folks are. It seems like all this shipping of everything around the globe. It seems to me that things were much more sustainable in the “olden days” because it wasn’t expected to ship everything overseas.

    On another angle, I wonder how fast forest regrowth can take place during the new little ice age that many are talking about now.

  21. ivan says:

    Graeme, I assume the gift wrapping is to hide the brown envalope from the public just as they tried with their allowances.