How UK Bioenergy Hurts Forests and the Climate

The following article is appearing un-annotated in “The House,” the magazine of the UK Parliament.  This post provides references and additional information. For a pdf version of this post, click here.  If you’d like to receive occasional communications about bioenergy policy in the UK, including discussions in Parliament, please leave your name and email here. The form can also be used to submit a comment. Your information will not be shared. How UK Bioenergy Hurts Forests and the Climate – Annotated UK energy billpayers will soon be footing a £1bn-per-year bill for subsidies to renewable energy that increases greenhouse gas emissions and destroys forests. We base the subsidy estimate on the cost of subsidies in 2015, the last year for which complete data are available at the Renewable Energy Foundation Website, and on projections for new bioenergy capacity coming online. REF data:
REFDedicated biomass, biomass co-firing, and advanced gasification for 2015 received 18,958,000 Renewable Obligation Certificates at a cost of about £43 – £44 each, for a total bill of around £825 million. Changes since that time include the shutdown of the Ironbridge plant and forward movement of the proposed Teesside (299 MW) and Lynemouth (~390 MW after conversion) biomass plants. Once completed, these plants will be eligible for Contracts for Difference. We estimate subsidies of £400 – £500 m per year, on top of subsidies to the existing biomass industry, including Drax, which received £536 m in subsidies in 2016, according the annual report (p. 51):
ROCsThe subsidies go to companies that produce ‘biomass energy’: the burning of wood and other plant materials for electricity. The power is subsidized as ‘renewable’ even though biomass power stations emit more CO2 and particulate pollution per megawatt-hour than coal plants. The biomass Drax burns is primarily wood pellets. According to the 2016 annual report, biomass CO2 emissions are higher than coal emissions, per megawatt-hour.
emissionsBurning biomass increases particulate emissions, too. These data are from a Biofuelwatch study on emissions of particulate matter at Drax:
PM emissionsExploiting a loophole in international rules for greenhouse gas accounting, UK claims of ‘reductions’ in emissions rely in part on simply not counting millions of tonnes of CO2 from biomass power stations each year. As the Drax annual report explains (p. 42), power stations burning biomass get to count their massive CO2 emissions as zero: “The biogenic CO2 emissions resulting from power generation are counted as zero in official reporting to both UK authorities and under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme as the use of sustainable biomass is considered to be carbon neutral at the point of combustion. This methodology originates from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).” What Drax doesn’t tell you is that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which provides the science behind the UNFCCC rules, counts bioenergy in the land sector, not the energy sector – but this does not mean that bioenergy should be considered “carbon neutral”:  “The IPCC approach of not including bioenergy emissions in the Energy Sector total should not be interpreted as a conclusion about the sustainability or carbon neutrality of bioenergy.” And, in the IPCC chapter on agriculture, forests, and land use, page 877, it explains that extra CO2 uptake must occur for bioenergy emissions to be offset – a condition that is not met by UK biomass:  “The combustion of biomass generates gross GHG emissions roughly equivalent to the combustion of fossil fuels. If bioenergy production is to generate a net reduction in emissions, it must do so by offsetting those emissions through increased net carbon uptake of biota and soils”. Wood pellets imported from other countries provide the majority of UK biomass. Millions of tonnes of trees are chipped, pelletized, and shipped to the UK as fuel. Data from Ofgem “Biomass Sustainability” dataset for 2015 – 2016
Pellet importsLucrative UK subsidies have unleashed a vicious cycle, driving an average 15-20% year-on-year increase in wood pellet demand that is met by logging tens of thousands of hectares of forests in the US, Canada, and other countries each year. A US International Trade Administration report shows data on pellet exports:
Pellet exportsHow many hectares? According to Forisk, a wood industry tracking and data service, it takes 2.2 tonnes of green roundwood (including bark, which is then stripped) to make one tonne of pellets. Data from the US Forest Service (tables 11 and 38a) show green weight of tree boles in timberlands of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, states where the pellet industry is well established, is about 132 tonnes per hectare. Thus, ~7 million tonnes of pellets used in UK x 2.2 tonnes roundwood = 15.4 million tonnes, if it’s all roundwood. Some pellets are made from pre-existing sawdust (“mill residues”), however. Even if just 60% of pellets that come from roundwood, that’s 9.4 million tonnes ÷ 132 tonnes/ha = ~70,000 hectares harvested per year, if all forests were as productive as US southeastern forests This is a square 25.8 km on each side, or the equivalent of wiping out the Forest of Dean and all its surroundings, each and every year.

Forest of DeanPellet harvesting devastates forests because pellets can be made from trees that may have flaws that prevent them from being used for sawtimber. That means the loggers take everything. In the US southeast, the pellet industry logs wetland forests that represent some of the most biodiverse and carbon-rich forests in North America.
Site1North Carolina forest after harvesting for pellet feedstock. Some high-value logs may have gone for other purposes. Photo courtesy of Dogwood Alliance.
trucksTrucks waiting to enter Enviva pellet plant in North Carolina, USA. Photo courtesy of Dogwood Alliance.
Ahoskie aerialEnviva’s pellet plant in Ahoskie, North Carolina. This is just one of a number of such plants in the US.  Photo courtesy of Dogwood Alliance. The result is that most of the UK’s biomass power is in fact making climate change worse, flying in the face of the Paris Agreement, which calls for countries to ‘preserve and enhance sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases, including forests, and to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.’ The text of the Paris Agreement is here. Article 5 speaks about the role of forests.  This cycle could be brought to an abrupt halt by UK action, because it is the world’s biggest pellet importer. Over 80 percent of the wood pellets exported by the US and Canada are burned in UK power stations. See chart above for US data: ~3.9 million tonnes of a total of ~4.7 million tonnes of US exports headed to the UK in 2015 (more than 80%).  More recent US data and recent Canadian data show a similar percentage. The government should consult its own research – a September 2017 BEIS ‘Consultation on controlling the costs of biomass conversion and co-firing under the Renewables Obligation’ admits that “When compared with [other genuinely low-carbon renewable] technologies, carbon savings from biomass conversion or co-firing are low or non-existent.” The BEIS consultation is here. The phrase occurs at page 10. If the UK is serious about addressing climate change, it must help restore and expand forests – not burn them for energy.

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