Burning ‘biomass’ to create electricity and reduce your carbon footprint is a fancy way of saying you’re chopping down forests to tackle climate change. Geoff Russell weighs in on an industry that continues to expand under a cover provided by faux environmentalists.
Living in cities has a way of insulating people from the consequences of their choices. We carefully nurture the trees we love in parks and gardens and have pictures of forests on our walls. But the labelling of wood as “renewable energy” is having far reaching consequences.
A recently published precision satellite mapping study has concluded that the amount of wood logged from European forests between 2016 and 2018 rose by 69 percent compared to the amount logged between 2011 and 2015.
A prophetic 2018 analysis by Tim Searchinger and others predicted exactly this kind of big rise: “Europe’s renewable energy directive poised to harm global forests”.
But of course, it was never only European forests destined for destruction, this was always going to become a global affliction. Here is a graph showing the increase for various regions. It was built with BP data, rather than satellite data, but it looks broadly consistent with the satellite study.
There is a massive global expansion in people burning forests for electricity. The reasons for this inevitability are simple. You can burn wood on windless nights. And it’s really cheap.
Apart from being cheap… a kilogram of wood holds about 10 times more energy than a kilogram of Li-ion battery. Do the math. You’d need 11.7 fully charged Tesla 85 kWh batteries to provide 1 MWh of electricity. This will cost you about $176,000. Alternatively you can burn half a tonne of wood pellets to drive a generator (assuming common efficiencies) at a cost of perhaps $100. And don’t forget, you still have to pay to charge your batteries.
The big culprit in Europe is the UK. She is importing compressed, dried and pelleted forest from as far away as North America. But while the UK’s increase has been massive, her 36 terawatt hours of electrical energy per annum from forests still has a way to go before reaching Germany’s 50 terawatt hours. Here’s a graph showing the output for key forest burners.
The reaction to ‘burning biomass’ tends to be somewhat different from the reaction to ‘burning forests’. Our minds love to play these games. The first sounds benign and the second a little ominous. Similarly, ‘sustainability’ is a friendly sounding buzzword long enough for climate vandalism to hide behind; and it is. Call it what you will, the reality is massive machines are destroying wildlife and their habitat while making our climate problem worse. I’ll detail the accounting tricks used to justify attack on forests below.
The good oil on wood pellets
FAOStat has no data on wood pellets as a category of forestry prior to 2012, but it’s been growing rapidly.
What are wood pellets? They are wood that has been made into dried pellets suitable for use in modern power plants; they can burn hotter than normal wood, which makes them more efficient; and drying and compressing them makes it cheaper to ship across oceans from one side of the planet to the other.
The other terrific thing about wood pellets is that they don’t look like logged forests… in the same way that hamburger mince doesn’t look like a dead animal.
FAOStat doesn’t have data for 2019 yet, but for 2018 it reports almost 40 million tonnes of this modern wood fuel were burned to make electricity. This will yield a bit less than 100 terawatt-hours of electricity; which is about one sixth of the global total of electricity from wood.
The remaining 500 terawatt-hours comes from burning un-pelletised wood, including wood waste from things like newsprint production. The forest burning advocates have long argued that they just burn waste, but there is only so much waste. Most industries try to reduce waste production, so how can you expand output of an industry relying on waste when the source industry isn’t growing? You can’t.
But various organisations (like the IEA) set biomass energy production targets or predictions considerably in excess of today’s level; so they must be assuming either a vastly increased total forestry industry (with a corresponding larger waste stream), or the much simpler assumption of a rise in simply felling trees for the singular purpose of burning them. Hence the rise in wood pellets.
The following chart makes it clear that most of the growth in electricity from biomass is coming from pelletised forests. Searchinger estimates that the Renewable Energy Directive targets for bioenergy from wood in 2030 would require more than the entire 2015 wood harvest.
It’s hard to conceive of such deliberate climate vandalism from the Europeans… except that it isn’t… they have form. Nowhere near as much form as my country, Australia, perhaps, but form nonetheless. Shutting nuclear plants ahead of time has to put them high up the ladder of climate criminals, and replacing that clean output with burning forests does make me question my opposition to capital punishment.
How to fool the public when you want to burn forests
The trick used by the people who regulate renewable energy, such as the EU and its Renewable Energy Directive (RED), is to use sloppy reasoning and rely on the mystique of the words ‘renewable’ and ‘sustainable’. Suppose I told you I would borrow your wages on the promise of eventually paying them back. If the period of the payback was 10 minutes, or an hour, or perhaps even a day, you might consent. But if it was 30-50 years or more?
That’s what the EU and pretty much everybody else is doing… and getting away with.
The EU’s RED entirely ignores the carbon dioxide emissions from burning wood on the assumptions that trees will regrow. Which is like borrowing big chunks of carbon and heaving them skyward against a promise of future growth in biomass. You might try to argue that this is a continuous process and that today’s forest growth offsets harvests from decades past. But that’s wrong for three reasons.
1. the argument fails entirely when the industry is growing… it isn’t a steady state industry.
2. In climate science, timing is everything. When cattle eat grass, the carbon dioxide they breath out isn’t counted in National Greenhouse Gas Inventories on the reasonable assumption that the grass will regrow; which it does. This process is fast enough that the assumption is reasonable. But the period to offset the carbon with tree growth is quite significant relative to the timescale of our climate problem.
3. Cutting trees is foregoing sequestration. People have tried to engineer carbon capture and storage for decades. It’s technically tricky, not to mention costly, and many power stations aren’t situated close to suitable geology. But carbon sequestration by tree growth works.
Forests are a carbon sink and burning them reduces that sink while simultaneously increasing climate warming. Forestry companies, like fossil fuel companies might reasonably argue that by demanding that they stop exploiting resources that they own, we are penalising them. Which is true. Governments may or may not choose to compensate them for such losses, but those are financial issues unrelated to the ethical imperative to stop climate deterioration or the science of optimising our strategy for getting emissions to where they need to be.
When you burn wood, the actual emissions can be up to 1.55 kg of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour; some 50 percent higher than coal. Searchinger estimates that if the payback period is 60 years, the time it takes to replace that carbon with forest growth, then the climate impact of burning wood remains higher than coal for about 30 years.
The 60-year period is conservative, many forests take longer.
And then there’s tree roots. The mass of a tree above ground is only part of the story of a tree. There may be a third as much again below ground. That carbon will also be released, albeit more slowly… and ignored.
The RED treatment of wood is a fairly transparent scam engineered for the benefit of assorted forestry and energy companies.
Biomass in context
Here’s a graph of where Europe gets her non-fossil fuelled electricity. The little “+” on the “biomass+” label just indicates that it also includes geothermal and “waste to electricity” plants; the burning of garbage.
There is a dual tragedy in this graph. First the rise in burning forests and second the decline in nuclear power; the cleanest energy source. Nuclear also has a small, compact, centralised and well understood waste stream… unlike wind and solar.
The elephant in the room: Heat
So much for electricity, what about heating? Australians don’t think much about heating. Temperature control, for most of us, is all about cooling… which means air-conditioning. But globally the picture is different. Heat accounts for about half of all energy consumption globally. That’s a mind-bending fact. Here’s a graph from the International Energy Agency:
Some of the terms in the image need explaining. So called “Traditional use of bioenergy” is open fireplace burning. So called “Modern bioenergy” is burning in a more controlled environment, usually with pellets or biofuels. But it’s all just burning wood.
That picture gives you a good feel for the size of the waste burning industry. Burning methane produced by garbage dumps is a great thing and anything you can do to reduce the methane from such waste streams is brilliant, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the energy from such systems is significant.
The image and the domination of heat as a user of energy highlights another key problem for anybody concerned with trying to fix our climate.
Namely, that while the modern environmental movement focused on getting nuclear power stopped, natural gas expanded to dominate the heat sector. It has since moved on, again with the help of so-called environmentalists, to also dominate the electricity sector.
Under the guise of being a “transition fuel”, natural gas has become the fuel to which everybody has transitioned. This hasn’t been some quick and cheap fix which is readily jettisoned as cleaner technologies emerge. Consider the Gorgon LNG project in Western Australia. This is a A$50 billion project which a 60-year lifespan. Investors will fight tooth and nail to keep it operational.
Why are we in this mess?
So called “greens”, particularly of the European variety, have been backing the burning of forests for electricity and heat… seduced by those weasel words ‘renewable’ and ‘sustainable’. They have similarly backed gas as a transition fuel and wasted decades in attacking the wrong target – nuclear power – while giving gas and biomass an easy ride. The problem now is that the gas and biomass industries have become so massive that stopping them looks all but impossible.
Public perception and renewable energy
Forests and their animals are renewable and perhaps sustainable in the sense that you may be able to log the former and kill the latter without causing extinctions. But “sustainability” is a pitiful yardstick to judge an activity against.
Cannibalism is sustainable meat. Dog and cock fighting won’t wipe out dogs and cocks. ‘Sustainable’ and ‘renewable’ isn’t the same as optimal, kind, good or even just plain reasonable. ‘Sustainable’ and ‘renewable’ are just sales gimmicks for suckers.
Go back up to the top and focus on the red line in the second graph in the article; on the graph of European clean electricity. It shows what appears to be a modest rise in electricity from biomass, but we have to keep in mind that even a modest rise in output requires large numbers of trees.
Lines on graphs mean nothing if you have no feel for what they represent. The UK, for example, has had the largest growth in forest-based electricity production over the past 4 years… going from 29.3 to 36.6 terawatt hours per year.
How much wood do you need to burn to generate 36.6 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity in a year? About 16.5 million tonnes. This is based on a report from Drax, a coal-based power plant recently converted to run on wood (see here). So to get Europe’s full 220 TWh, you need 100 million tonnes of wood; about 2.5 million of the kind of 40 tonne double logging truckloads of trees shown in the picture below… after trimming.
And what about China? She’s also burning forests in a big way… 102 TWh worth in 2019 (according to the same BP dataset used to produce the graph). Her use of biomass for electricity has almost doubled during the past five years.
During the late 1990s, China was hit with a succession of big floods and decided to slash her forestry… sorry about the pun. She wanted more trees to hold mud on hillsides. So she started to source more wood from elsewhere; mostly from Russia and Scandinavia. So what’s the situation now? Where is the wood fuelling China’s wood pellet boom coming from?
The short answer is everywhere. Here are the top 14 countries sending wood to China. This is all wood, not just pellets, but it gives you a feel for how widely she’s trading.
In any event, we now have some understanding of the tonnes of wood required for the expanding terawatt-hours of electricity. And we have a feel for the number of truckloads. But how many hectares of forest are we talking about? How much forest do you need to cut for a million tonnes of wood?
Vaclav Smil is an energy expert and his book Power Density has estimates of the areas of land required for most energy sources. If a forest is sustainably harvested – which says nothing about the impact on animals (or the climate) – then to produce 6 TWh of electricity requires about 330,000 hectares of forest.
6TWh is one large power station of about 1,000MW running at 70 per cent uptime. We are talking about temperate forests here, the figure would vary for other kinds.
So how much is 330,000 hectares? It’s a square of forest, criss-crossed with timber access tracks with sides of 58 km. Each year, loggers would remove 2.7 million tonnes of timber (after trimming), and load it onto 67,600 double logging trucks. Or about one and a half times the size of the Australian Capital Territory.
So now you have everything you need to get a handle on the impact behind talk of rises in bioenergy… again, this is a term which obscures the intrinsic savagery of large-scale industrial logging.