Biomass: head to head debating pros and cons

Materials World magazine
,
1 Sep 2013

Is biomass a viable part of the future energy mix, or is it part of the carbon emissions problem? Eoin Redahan asked two industry experts.

Stewart Boyle (SB) runs the consultancy arm of South East Wood Fuels

Duncan Law (DL) represents Biofuelwatch, an NGO that raises awareness of the negative impacts of industrial biofuels and bioenergy.

The pro biomass perspective – SB

I spent 18 months on research into the potential and reality of bio-energy in the UK. Its advantages are real, in that it provides versatility (offering heating, cooling, power generation, transport fuels and bio-chemicals), reliability (no problems with intermittency), and is sustainable and cost-effective. It could provide 10–20% of our energy by 2030–2040 – three times the output of nuclear power.

Bio-energy is a critical renewable option in allowing the clear transition to lowcarbon hybrid vehicles, de-carbonising power and shifting to green gas. To achieve its potential we need a significant effort to educate, show how it offers an integrated energy solution, and argue head-on the bad science arguments being used against it.

From a support position five years ago, many environmental NGOs now oppose biofuels, pure biopower and co-firing. One NGO, Biofuelwatch, says bio-energy leads to forest destruction – witness its attitudes on palm oil and kernels for biofuels – and suggests that Drax (the UK’s largest power station, which co-fires biomass) mostly uses old growth forest from North America. This is utter tosh and the Drax team should be applauded, not criticised, for its cradle-to-grave sustainability system.

I spent a big chunk of my earlier life working for several NGOs. However, I think many are biased, use bad science and have lost the plot on bio-energy.

The anti biomass perspective – DL

Under the guise of renewable energy and carbon saving, burning wood in power stations is a massive growth industry in the UK right now. Huge old coal power stations such as Drax are getting UK Government subsidies to burn millions of tonnes of imported wood at 37% efficiency, but can only use good quality wood with low bark content – not pure forest wastes.

Burning wood emits even more carbon than burning coal for a given amount of energy generated (especially when whole trees are used). Forests take up to a century to absorb as much CO2 as is emitted when they are burned. So emissions will actually rise. The DECC now acknowledges that burning biomass in dedicated power stations offers poor-value carbon savings compared with wind power or even gas. Yet they offer huge subsidies.

Current UK biomass burning plans are projected to demand nearly the entire global biomass trade by 2025. Most of it currently comes from the USA and Canada where biodiverse, old-growth forests are being clear felled and replaced with monoculture tree plantations.

Biomass also produces more small particulate pollution than coal, which can have grave public health impacts. Minister Ed Davey, UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, said, ‘Making electricity from biomass based on imported wood is not a long-term answer to our energy needs – I am quite clear about that’.

Biomass is not an answer. It pollutes, is costly, inefficient, does not contribute to UK energy security, damages biodiversity and forests, and makes climate change worse.

SL:

I disagree with virtually all of Duncan’s comments on bioenergy. Take the carbon debt issue – the supposed scientific basis of much NGO opposition. Duncan says, ‘Forests take up to a century to absorb as much CO2 as is emitted when they are burned’. In my opinion, this is misleading. While cutting and then replacing a single tree or small stand of trees will take some time for the CO2 to be absorbed, guess what? Foresters know that. A well-managed forest has a wide range of trees – some mature and ready for felling, others in mid-growth and absorbing lots of CO2, plus newly planted trees.

When DECC researchers looked at the issue, they concluded, ‘Providing forest stands are re-established as soon as they are clear-felled, overall carbon stocks in the forest are not reduced [no carbon debt is incurred]. Rather, a constant carbon stock is maintained over time.’ Using low-quality wood materials that have no competing uses, Drax clearly demonstrates substantial carbon savings of well over 70%.

That Drax ‘mostly’ uses wood from clear-felled old growth forests is simply not true. Duncan references this from a single BBC radio programme, but any independent audit of Drax’s biomass materials would refute the suggestion.

No one argues that co-firing is the end game. Other technologies are coming fast. It does, however, offer reliable, lower-cost carbon reductions quickly to gain momentum and investment into this and second-generation technologies. Arguing for perfection now in bio-energy will kill off key solutions to our climate crisis and invite in shale gas, nuclear and extreme oil.

DL:

Biofuelwatch has been working for seven years on this issue. We follow the plot of the bioenergy industry closely.

To counter just one of Stewart’s specific assertions – Drax bases its optimistic 70% carbon savings from biomass on using ‘forest wastes that would simply be burnt in the forest’ (Paul Taylor, Drax Director). Freedom of Information evidence shows they can only use wood from slow growing trees that have a low bark content. Drax is using pellets from whole trees. Dogwood Alliance (a forest protection network) has documented clear-felling of old-growth forest for the energy industry. Peer-reviewed evidence shows that rates of global forest cover loss in southeast USA are among the highest globally. Conversion to tree plantations causes huge emissions. All this equals carbon debt. The impossibility of real sustainability assessment in the biomass industry is documented in a Biofuelwatch report.

Vast Government subsidies and the Green Investment Bank loan to Drax extend the coalburning life of this plant by years. And the biomass will increase, not reduce, its real carbon emissions. Biomass is the easy option for the Government and industry to avoid a supply crunch and keep the lights on by using existing technologies. The vast ambitions of the bio-energy industry disregard unintended consequences. It is set to expand in a way that is dangerous and unsustainable.

Biofuelwatch opposes big bioenergy because the impacts are unacceptably dangerous, both in terms of current carbon emissions and damage to the planet’s life support systems. It is a distraction from rethinking our demand and our energy systems for a real low-carbon future.

Both speakers referred to different sources to back up their statements. For a full list of sources, visit our blog: materialsworld.tumblr.com

What do you think? Which of the two speakers convinced you most? Are there any other important issues that should be addressed? Email or tweet us your comments at: materials.world@iom3.org or @materialsworld or if you are logged in, comment below.