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Myths About Biomass

February 27, 2015

By Paul Homewood  





It is often claimed that producing electricity from biomass is carbon neutral, and that the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere is simply taken back out when forests are replanted.

Unfortunately, things are not as simple as this.


Last April, a number of environmental scientists from the US wrote to Ed Davey outlining their concerns on the matter.







DECC were so alarmed by this letter that they commissioned their own report that found burning wood to fuel power stations can create as many harmful carbon emissions as burning coal.


None of this should have come as any surprise, because research two years earlier found that the use of whole trees for biomass would  increase greenhouse gas emissions, based on a whole life cycle basis, by at least 49% compared to using coal over 40 years.

When even Friends of the Earth say “This is really embarrassing for the government – they have finally admitted what we have been saying for a very long time. Under the current rules there is no way of government knowing whether wood is being burned in a way that is beneficial to the climate or not”, we should perhaps sit up and listen.


There are knock on effects as well. For instance, what is the effect on soil structure and nutrients of clearing all the waste wood from a felled forest?  What if the price for burnable wood outstrips the price for wood pulp, and forces the USA to import wood from elsewhere to make its paper products?


The BBC report that Mr Davey sees biomass burning as a temporary solution to meet short-term carbon reduction targets. And, of course, this really is the point. These targets are based on IPCC guidelines that state that the CO2 contained within biological materials, such as wood pellets, which are to be burnt for energy purposes, such as electricity generation, is accounted for by the harvesting country.

The UK can hit its targets for CO2 emissions and renewables with biomass, simply by transferring the problem over to the US. But whether it makes any difference to CO2 levels in the atmosphere is another question.

  1. VicV permalink
    February 27, 2015 1:41 pm

    If this becomes more widely known, the Cary Institute and Dr. Schlesinger will come to the attention of U.S. Representative Raúl M. Grijalva.

  2. February 27, 2015 1:45 pm

    It must be true, even the RSPB is against unsustainable biomass.

    Apparently they’re helping develop new sources of sustainable bioenergy despite having biomass heating systems in some of their own buildings.

  3. Newsel permalink
    February 27, 2015 1:52 pm

    All in the name of the religion of Climate Change… as this article establishes, absolute insanity.

    For a start, given the latest forecast from BP, the Climate_Change_Act_2008 should be repealed as it serves no useful purpose other than to line the pockets of the green lobby with subsidies paid for by the consumer.

  4. February 27, 2015 2:03 pm

    Why not ask the clown prince, as he seems to know that we are running out of time to save the earth and how it should be fixed. He even lectured the Royal Society about how climate change is the cause of poverty, starvation migration and conflict and that the green lobby would even cure obesity, cancer and more. Obviously nothing to do with the mal-distribution of the world’s wealth.

  5. February 27, 2015 3:14 pm

    When you’ve lost the enviro’s, it’s not quite as cuddly, green, carbon-friendly and sustainable as you would like. I don’t think this idea made any sense from the start, but you really don’t have to use great logic if you are green.

    I don’t believe converting all the coal electricity in the UK to North American wood products is sustainable. However, parts of the Daily Mail article and the letter might be taken with a grain of salt. The Enviva plant in the Mail article is in an old paper mill. The reason the paper mill was there was that that they were near an extended source of trees. So, tree cutting has been going on for a long time. One of the standard practices is to clear cut and then replant. Replanting southern pine forests has been going on since the 1940’s. Enviva claims to use only waste wood and trees that are not suitable for other purposes. I wouldn’t want to guess the distance from the wood source that holds economically. However, it’s likely cheaper to put your processing unit near the wood source than haul the wood long distances.

    The North Carolina got its start as a producer of naval stores for Britain. The primary tree was the pitch pine. There is a river in eastern NC called the “Tar” because it was a major transportation route for naval tar. So, the mother country raiding the colonies for forest products has been going on for a few centuries.

    • Retired Dave permalink
      February 27, 2015 3:53 pm

      I am willing to bet that NC never supplied wood from this area on such an industrial scale in the past for paper-mills. The “only using off-cuts” was exposed a while back as whole trees were filmed. 14Ktons per day of off-cuts takes a bit of believing. As I say below we are told not to waste paper to save trees and the planet.

      The CO2 footprint of this operation probably means that little if anything is gained even over mining the coal beneath Drax’s feet. As Matt Ridley and many environmentalists have pointed out – just burning the wood denies many little creatures their food and livelihoods. No creatures eat coal.

      The same level of wanton destruction can be seen in Scotland for windfarms and powerlines and in Germany for powerlines and access to lignite. There is no surprise that real environmentalists in all three countries are fighting The Green Blob over such stupidity.

  6. Retired Dave permalink
    February 27, 2015 3:39 pm

    As they say – “25 years ago Greens were chaining themselves to trees – now they are burning them”.

    You couldn’t make it up. BUT unfortunately they did.

    Just to today alone I have had 2 emails imploring me not to print this email – to save the planet and yesterday a manufacturer of wooden windows gravely told me that they only use wood from sustainable forests! How I laughed – well at least that helps to redress the balance as Drax burns 15,000 tons of North Carolina a day!!!!!!!

    Surely someone in DECC should be made responsible for this stupidity (and sacked and imprisoned) but he/she will just say “Greenpiss told me it was a great idea”.

    The whole thing is enough to make you weep.

  7. Chris Manuell permalink
    February 27, 2015 4:59 pm

    The only way you can get biomass anywhere near carbon neutral is short rotation coppice. Some 20 odd years ago (when I believed we were causing a climate problem) I started a company to push this with the government of the time. The Idea was to grow fast growing coppice like Poplar, Willow or Miscanthus (Elephant grass) on farmland where farmers were having to use set aside and not grow food crops. This is then harvested every three years by forage harvester which cuts the trees and chips them at the same time, this could then be dried naturally and gasified and fuels an engine to produce both heat and light for hospitals and other places that use a lot of heat and light. The trees then regrow absorbing the CO2 produced by the gasification and energy generation.
    At the time although I had it fully costed but I could not get the government interested. Probably 20 years too soon.

    • outtheback permalink
      February 27, 2015 5:49 pm

      Chris, that might have merit.
      But what I find is that the energy content of poplar and willow is very low, I am not familiar with Miscanthus. You would need a lot of it and even with poplar and willow that what is cut off after say 5 years is not all that substantial. You would need lots of trees to harvest from, which would mean having to travel vast distances, but of course the truck and machinery will by then also be running on biomass.
      I have poplar, willow, pine and eucalyptus growing. I much prefer the eucalyptus for firewood, don’t need much of it to warm the house, high energy content and one cut burns for a long time saving time tending the fireplace, pine is nowhere near as good but as I have much more of it that is what is mostly used. I tend to leave the poplar and willow to rot where they fall as it is hardly worth my time and effort to cut it, split it and get it into the shed for the little bit of heat it gives, you almost have to stay near the fireplace as you keep loading when burning that stuff. But poplar and willow leaves are great animal fodder.

      • Chris Manuell permalink
        February 27, 2015 6:45 pm

        That’s why you gasify it rather than just burn it, you can then run a large engine on the gas which generates electricity through a generator with shaft drive and use the heat from the engine through a heat exchanger to provide hot water. It becomes much more efficient. There are a number of plants working see

    • Edmonton Al permalink
      February 27, 2015 7:11 pm

      Chris ….
      Do not concern yourself with CO2 emissions. CO2 does not cause global warming.
      Read this………

      Click to access Planetary_Core_and_Surface_Temperatures.pdf

      Here is an excerpt:
      The Problems with the Greenhouse Conjecture
      The so called Greenhouse Effect is based on the concept that the Sun warms the surface of a planet
      and then that surface cools at a rate governed by the composition of the atmosphere. The rate of
      cooling is thought to have something to do with the amount of upwelling radiation absorbed by the
      atmosphere, and/or the amount of energy which then returns to the surface by way of radiation.
      But, quite apart from radiation, heat is also transferred from the surface to the atmosphere by nonradiative
      processes. Then nitrogen and oxygen molecules play the main role of insulating the
      surface, whilst water vapour and carbon dioxide help to radiate energy out of the atmosphere, and
      thus have an overall cooling effect, as we shall see in later sections.
      It is indeed correct to say that radiation from the atmosphere does slow the component of surface
      cooling which is itself by radiation. But, at the same time, the presence of all air molecules just
      above the surface will also have a somewhat greater effect slowing the cooling of the surface.
      Molecules of a gas move around freely between impacts with others, and energy is transferred into
      these molecules as they collide with the surface. So ordinary nitrogen and oxygen molecules also
      have an insulating role, and the closer the temperatures get between the surface and these air
      molecules, the more they will slow the cooling process. They are the real blanket, for the very
      reason that they do not radiate much at typical temperatures found in the troposphere. Instead, it is
      water vapour and other radiating molecules like carbon dioxide which radiate energy out of the
      atmosphere and thus act like holes in the blanket, as you may read in an article Th

      • forester126 permalink
        February 28, 2015 7:36 am

        Edmonton, I’m not worried about CO2 emmisions as I said at the beginning. I stated IF you wanted to get close to carbon neutral.

  8. Bloke down the pub permalink
    February 27, 2015 5:09 pm

    They convinced themselves that we would only be burning off-cuts but didn’t even think that through properly. Off-cuts would previously have been going into products such as chip board for use in the building industry where the carbon would be sequestered away for decades. Instead it now goes up in smoke, genius at work.

  9. John Russell permalink
    February 28, 2015 10:44 am

    Frightening!  Bill has a woodburner for chips and his come from Latvia as there aren’t enough here.  Do you think the latvians plant a new tree for every one lost?  And what about the 30 – 50 years lag.  I thought this was supposed to be urgent. These interfering liberal do gooders with none workable solutions drive me wild! From: NOT A LOT OF PEOPLE KNOW THAT To: Sent: Friday, 27 February 2015, 12:41 Subject: [New post] Myths About Biomass #yiv1566682317 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv1566682317 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv1566682317 a.yiv1566682317primaryactionlink:link, #yiv1566682317 a.yiv1566682317primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv1566682317 a.yiv1566682317primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv1566682317 a.yiv1566682317primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv1566682317 | Paul Homewood posted: “By Paul Homewood     ” | |

  10. Derek permalink
    February 28, 2015 10:15 pm

    As John Russell reminds us above, the CO2 reductions are supposed to be urgent, but biofuel will only bring savings in at least 30 years time, and probably longer. Isn’t this a case of “we’ve got to do something – this is something so let’s do it” The politicians are just short termists, hoping to keep the voters happy. As long as Christian Aid keep the pressure on the politicians will keep going. There are no public protests yet about high fuel costs, maybe some grumbles.

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