Doubts cast over wood pellets for biomass being classed as “green”

Posted by Andi

Recently, hard questions are being asked in regards to the sustainability aspect of using biomass as a fuel to generate electricity via a biomass power plant. The UK does not have the amount of land necessary to use a “managed forest” which is essentially a forest with the sole purpose of supplying a biomass power plant with the wood that it needs to burn.

Managed forests are supposed to be replenished as parts are cut down to power the plant meaning that on paper, if you have a managed forest next to a biomass power plant you will have an unlimited source of fuel, with most of the CO2 being absorbed by the newly planted trees.

However, the issue that we have in the UK is that we do not have any of these “managed forests”. The vast majority of our biomass fuel is shipped in from abroad, mainly Europe or the US.

Where does our biomass fuel come from?

Much of this wood comes from North Carolina in the United States. The vast majority of forest land in North Carolina is privately owned, with holdings as small as one acre (0.4ha).

Biomass Pellets

This could indicate that they are too tiny to qualify for conservation easements, which are agreements that encourage landowners to maintain trees intact while also providing financial incentives.

In essence, this means that the only way that many of these landowners can make money or break even is by selling the trees that grow on it. The wood is then sent to pellet mills where the wood is dried, chipped, ground down and then recompressed into easy-to-burn pellets, most of which are sent to the UK for use in our biomass plants.

Is this the right way to generate energy?

The sourcing of these pellets from the US raises some pretty prudent questions seeing as not only are we burning a dirty fuel and calling it clean, we are also shipping it across the North Atlantic to the UK which is a highly fuel-intensive exercise.

Also, because of the way volatile organic compounds from wood pellet manufacturing, particularly softwoods like pine, are transformed into formaldehyde and other unpleasant molecules, they are an issue.

Enviva, the world’s largest manufacturer of wood pellets, contends that its facilities meet air quality standards. Biomass is beginning to be perceived in the same way as fossil fuel-powered energy generation, not only in the United States because of the effects on communities near pellet plants, but also globally because of the peculiar way its carbon emissions are calculated. Many people believe that the existing carbon accounting regulations for wood pellets are ineffective. They are counted at the point of harvest, such as in North Carolina, rather than at the point of combustion, such as in the UK’s Drax power station in Yorkshire.

As the Biomass era of energy generation seems to come to a close, we must all look to newer, cleaner methods of generating our power. Wind, solar and tidal are currently the UK’s champions of renewable energy generation and if we are to stand a chance at hitting our net-zero targets then we must invest heavily in these sectors instead of unhealthy, carbon-heavy power plants.

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