UK biomass power industry is a vital part of the renewable energy mix

Longleaf Pine Regeneration in South Carolina. Photo: Justin Meissen via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
Longleaf Pine Regeneration in South Carolina. Photo: Justin Meissen via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
Contrary to arguments advanced in a recent Ecologist article, the biomass industry supplying the Drax power station in North Yorkshire is a model of sustainability, writes Nina Skorupska, and delivers genuine, substantial emissions reductions compared to coal.
Most pellets are sourced from the southern USA where forestry is well-regulated. The wood is typically from thinnings, tree tops, limbs, and sawmill residues, as well as misshapen and diseased trees not suitable for other use.

Re: #AxeDrax: campaigners unite for climate justice against coal and biofueled deforestation

Dear Sir,

The UK's biomass power industry is a vital part of the renewable power mix, embraces rigorous external scrutiny of its sustainability practices, and demonstrates clear emissions reductions.

EU bioenergy actively saves millions of tonnes of carbon emissions every year and benefits the local environment and forests. This point has been examined and re-examined by numerous Government studies and by independent organisations. To continue to ignore the scientific consensus on this has led to continued wasted resources and divides an important movement which should focus its attention on other pressing tasks. In terms of carbon emissions, it is clear that UK's heat and transport sectors are in need of substantially increased political attention (we are unlikely at present to meet our legally binding 2020 renewable energy targets in these areas), not to mention the expectation to lower emissions in the agricultural and maritime sectors. 

The UK's commitment to phase out coal power production is an ambitious one and something that we hugely support. As the voice of the renewables industry we are acutely aware of the potential job losses and changes to local communities that such a shift could precipitate. While we are actively developing conversations about skills and jobs for fossil fuel workers in the renewables economy, using wood pellets is an important measure which will give many communities, businesses, and, importantly, the UK's electricity grid, a window in which to adapt.

To say Drax burns "7 million tonnes of wood a year- more than the UK's annual total production" is an enormously misleading statement. Most of the companies' pellets are sourced from the southern USA where the forestry industry is well-regulated, and multitudes larger than that which is in the UK. Sustainability regulation strictly prohibits any wood or biomass from primary forests, highly biodiverse grassland or protected nature for energy generation, and ensures that there will be no deforestation or changes in land use. The wood and biomass is instead sourced from actively managed timber producing forests in the US and EU. The wood is typically from thinnings, tree tops, limbs, and sawmill residues, as well as misshapen and diseased trees not suitable for other use. The wood fuel is largely produced from the lower value wood of an already established forestry industry.

At a time of significant increased use of wood power, heat, and bioenergy in general, the UK woodland area has continuously increased every decade, with UK woodland area increasing from 11.3% in 1999 to 13.0% in 2015. Similarly, the net annual increase in EU forest cover is 289,886 square meters, equivalent to over 40 football fields of new forests every year. Likewise, the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service says that the forest cover has been increasing every year since 1950. The carbon contained in forests has therefore also continuously increased in the UK, EU, and the US.

The UK government holds the British biomass industry, which in addition to domestic supply includes imports from North America and Europe, to some of the highest standards in the world. The wood and bioenergy sectors do not claim to be completely carbon neutral, as there are still some emissions connected to transporting and producing the fuel. But it is a mandatory requirement to demonstrate over 60% reduction in CO2 compared to the EU fossil average via full life-cycle analysis. Drax Power for instance demonstrates carbon savings of over 80% compared to coal, and the UK wood heating industry generate an average 87.5% GHG saving compared to EU fossil heat average. The sector's ability to demonstrate sustainability is a condition of their ongoing support from the government, and therefore undergoes rigorous external scrutiny of its practices.

Wood and biomass energy delivers significant carbon savings compared to fossil fuel. It ensures better, more sustainably managed forests while improving wildlife, forest health, and rural economies, all on top of providing consumers and businesses with low-carbon electricity and high quality heating, particularly in rural homes, large buildings, and schools. Campaigns that rally against the industry's growth fly in the face of established strict accounting practices and a multitude of scientific studies. This diverts our energies away from focusing on the 82%* of the UK's total energy that is still provided by CO2 intensive fossil fuels.



Dr. Nina Skroupska CBE is Chief Executive of the Renewable Energy Association.

* Source: Digest of UK Energy Statistics 2016- fossil fuels, including gas, oil, and coal account for 82% of the UK's energy supply (across transport, heat, and power).

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