Response To Dorothy Thompson
By Paul Homewood
The Telegraph have printed this letter today in response to Christopher Booker’s piece last Sunday om renewable energy:
It contains a number of misleading statements:
1) Far from producing more CO2 emissions, as Mr Booker claims, we actually make carbon savings of more than 80 per cent.
This calculation ignores the CO2 emitted from burning wood, on the basis that it will be reabsorbed by replacement forestry.
Even if this is the case, it would take many decades to take effect, thus making it worthless as a means of combatting climate change in coming years.
The Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI), a US environmental group, published a damning assessment last year on the impact on US forests of logging for biomass. They included this table showing that CO2 emissions from biomass were actually greater than from coal:
Thompson is only able to get away with this sleight of hand because of EU rules, which state that CO2 emissions from burning biomass count as zero carbon.
2) Electricity generation in Britain is heavily regulated. Drax must demonstrate that the biomass we use comes from sustainably managed forests where biodiversity is protected, productivity is maintained, and growth exceeds what is harvested.
Drax takes the lower grade wood, including tree tops, limbs, sawmill residues, misshapen and diseased trees and thinnings – small trees that have been removed to maximise the growth of the remaining trees.
The US Natural Resources Defense Council would appear to disagree. In 2015 they published this comprehensive report on how US forests were being sacrificed to supply ever greater demand for wood pellets from European biomass plants:
The report found:
Wood pellet exports from the United States doubled from 1.6 million tons in 2012 to 3.2 million tons in 2013. They increased again, by nearly 40 percent, from 2013 to 2014 and are expected to reach 5.7 million tons in 2015. Wood pellet manufacturing in the region is expected to continue skyrocketing, with production estimates as high as 70 million metric tons by 2020.
To manufacture wood pellets, mills in the Southeast cart in truckload after truckload of raw material harvested from the region’s forests to their facilities where they compress sawdust or grind up whole trees and other large forest residuals into uniform pellets. These pellets are then loaded onto ships and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to be burned in European power stations. Wood pellet manufacturers and their major customers claim that pellets from these mills are composed entirely of sawdust and other mill residues, tree trimmings, and diseased or “problem” trees not suitable as timber.
However, studies have concluded that logging residuals alone are unlikely to meet biomass fuel market demand and that healthy, whole trees (e.g., pulpwood) will be needed. Our research, along with the research of other organizations, shows that the harvest of whole trees is already taking place—and that these trees are coming not only from plantations. This report is the first to reveal the potential scale of the pressure on southeastern forests from operating and proposed pellet mill manufacturers in the region. Working with the Conservation Biology Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council has compiled data showing the troublesome geographic nexus between unprotected forests in the region and existing and proposed wood pellet manufacturing facilities, placing the threats to these forests in stark visual relief.
Existing and proposed pellet mills, such as those owned by U.S. pellet manufacturing giant Enviva and British utility company Drax Power, are sited not just within harvest range of plantations but within range of unprotected, natural bottomland hardwood forests. Nearly every proposed pellet plant—and several current plants—are sourcing from areas that include critical habitat for up to 25 species that are federally listed as imperiled or endangered. Seen here in totality for the first time, the pressure on forests in this region from the biomass industry is nearly ubiquitous.
The PFPI report, already mentioned, also claimed:
The report concludes that Enviva’s statements about the sources of wood it uses for pellet manufacture are also misleading, because they emphasize the role of “residues,” “sawdust,” and other types of waste wood and downplay cutting of whole trees for feedstock. Specifications for the company’s pellet plants indicate that Enviva predominantly uses large-diameter tree trunks and branches for feedstock, including mature hardwood trees from wetland forests. On-the-ground investigations also bear this out.
"There is ample evidence documenting Enviva’s reliance on large volumes of whole trees to make wood pellets; we have seen the wetland forest clearcuts and watched truck after truck loaded with trees enter their facilities," said Danna Smith, Executive Director of Dogwood Alliance. "Enviva and others in the biomass industry present the burning of forests for electricity as a positive but it’s actually harming our environment, rural Southern communities, and the climate."
Clearly the wood that Drax and other biomass operators source is not harvested in a sustainable way. Nor does it appear to be purely offcuts and the like, which Thompson would like us to believe.
3) Drax must demonstrate that the biomass we use comes from sustainably managed forests
In theory, the wood pellets Drax uses are supposed to be certified for sustainability. The US company Enviva is one of their major suppliers.
However, Enviva and others are audited by the Sustainability Biomass Partnership (SBP).
As the Drax website notes, in 2013, we co-founded the Sustainable Biomass Partnership (SBP) with six other companies. SBP was set up to provide a tool for assuring that woody biomass is supplied from legal and sustainable sources. That tool is a unique certification scheme designed for woody biomass, mostly in the form of wood pellets and wood chips, used in industrial, large-scale energy production.
Until last October, the SBS Chairman was none other than Dorothy Thompson.
The six members of SBS read like a Who’s Who of biomass plant operators:
The idea that SBS can be relied upon to be independent and objective is frankly laughable.
In no other industry would such conflict of interest be tolerated.
In reality, burning biomass is neither green, sustainable, nor does it do anything to reduce CO2 emissions for many decades to come.
Even Ed Davey, when he was running DECC, accepted that there were genuine environmental concerns, and saw biomass burning as only a temporary solution to meet short-term carbon reduction targets.
Without the EU ruling that it counted towards renewable targets, and consequently the obscene subsidies that followed, biomass operations such as Drax would never have got off the ground.
Booker has suggested we knock some letters to the Telegraph together, to respond to Thompson’s. I will try and do something tomorrow.
If anybody else wishes to, the email address is: