REA statement addresses Chatham House claims
Feb. 28, 2017 - The U.K.'s Renewable Energy Association issued a statement in response to the Chatham House report that questioned the carbon neutrality of biomass.
February 28, 2017 By Renewable Energy Association
Misleading statements in the report, answered
1. The report claims that carbon emissions from biomass energy production are “generally at higher levels than from fossil fuels.”
- This misses the entire point of the use of biomass. Carbon contained in woody biomass is already part of the atmospheric cycle, whereas burning fossil fuels is adding carbon to the natural carbon cycle. Biomass is low-carbon because the carbon released during combustion is reabsorbed by the growing forests where it was sourced.
2. The report claims that it can take decades or even centuries to reabsorb carbon released by biomass power
- This shows a deep misunderstanding of how forests work. A single tree may take time to regrow, but a forest is managed on an ongoing basis. A well-managed forest grows at an optimum rate, promoting carbon absorption. This means that trees can be harvested for the timber industry (and their offcuts, thinnings and residues going to bioenergy) whilst still maintaining a positive growth rate. This means carbon lost is immediately reabsorbed – there is no delay involved.
- US forest cover is increasing and so the amount of carbon contained in US forests is increasing: the US Environmental Protection Agency reports that the amount of carbon contained in US forests is around a third higher now than it was in 1991.
3. The report implies that UK biomass use is resulting in decreased US forest stock
- It is stated that “Policy frameworks [ignores] changes in forest carbon stock”, however the UK’s sustainability regime overseen by the independent regulator Ofgem strictly demands that there can be no change in land use or deforestation.
- The US Department of Agriculture Forest Service says forest cover has been increasing for over 50 years withstanding volume increasing by 50% since the 1950s. At the same time net volume per acre has increased 94% since 1953 thanks to better forest management. The US forest estate now stands at 751 million acres, the same figure as in 2010. Biomass supports the forest and woodland growth.
4. The report also claims that “the feedstock derives from harvesting whole trees”
- This has little evidence to support it, as it simply does not reflect normal forestry practice because it is economically unsustainable. Forest owners sell the best wood (tall, straight log wood) to the construction industry for the highest prices. Then the next grade down goes to the industries such as furniture production. As they work down the different grades of wood, eventually they come to very low-grade material and this goes to industries including the bioenergy sector, for the lowest prices. Bioenergy cannot compete on price with the construction sector for the same wood – it takes the leftovers.
- However, it is true to say that forest thinnings go to bioenergy. Forest thinnings are smaller or misshapen trees and branches that are removed to encourage growth in the surrounding trees. This encourages higher quality wood for construction and joinery. These thinnings have fewer uses as they are not large or high quality enough for joinery or construction uses. Pulping for paper is one use, but this is a declining market as newsprint dwindles. An alternative market for this low-grade wood is biomass together with offcuts and sawmill residues. If the biomass industry didn’t use this waste fibre, much of it would either stay on the forest floor or be burned – a bad carbon outcome.
5. The report claims that when sawmill residues are diverted from use as wood products to use as energy, “net carbon emissions will be higher as a result”.
- Bioenergy users cannot afford to compete with other wood users on price. Therefore it is not commercially plausible to suggest that sawmill residues would be ‘diverted’ from any alternative uses.
6. The report vaguely claims that biomass energy “may be more likely to displace other sources of renewable energy rather than fossil fuels”.
- EU production of renewable energy from solid biomass has increased by just 9.7% between 2009 and 2014. This occurred at the over the same period when EU production of all renewables increased by 57%, and coal generation plummeting. With renewable energy, it does not have to be “either/or”, but instead “and/both”.
- The renewable technologies complement each other in a flexible energy system, where wind turbines generate power in the evening and night, solar in the day, and biomass and geothermal baseload. With biomass conversion of coal plants, biomass power has directly replaced coal generation at a lower cost.
It is sad to see the Chatham House report ignore the significant body of peer-reviewed academic studies that verifies the contributions from biomass power in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and in supporting forest growth. Biomass is a small part of this responsible system, using some parts of the forest’s produce that the timber industry doesn’t want.
The system as a whole has led to a doubling of forest cover in the USA over 50 years. The fact is that biomass cuts carbon, supports forests, and delivers reliable energy at a lower cost. This report just makes vague statements without evidence and repeats claims that have been analysed many times and found wrong, which is disappointing.
Background on biomass energy
- Biomass is an important part of the UK energy mix. The UK government has some of the strictest biomass sustainability criteria (link here) in the world and require independent third-party verified accounting for life-cycle emission and forest practices. Emissions must be reduced by a minimum of 60% and the industry often achieves far greater than that (link here).
- It is possible to harvest trees and increase the amount of carbon contained in forests, as thinning allows for a smaller number of trees to become much larger rather than maintaining a larger number of smaller, crowded trees. Carbon contained in forests is a third higher in the US now since 1999.
- The US Department of Energy has published (July 2016) a detailed and comprehensive assessment of biomass energy availability, sustainability, and costs, based on evaluation of six demand scenarios. This provides a more complete analysis and detailed review than the Chatham House paper. See document here.
- The US and Canadian forestry sectors are in favour of the use of biomass for energy. A note following the 34th Meeting of the Council of Forest Engineering, June 12-15, Quebec City contains the following statement regarding sustainability of wood-based bioenergy production:
- “Two sets of sustainability metrics indicate that, on both national and regional bases, the U.S. South grows more than enough wood biomass from traditional sources to supply both known wood bioenergy projects that are likely to succeed and the current forest industry.” The report makes the statement detailed below (page 7) which is key to the entire discussion:
- After the carbon debt is repaid, as regrowth continues biomass may begin to yield ‘carbon dividends’ in the form of atmospheric greenhouse gas levels lower than would have occurred if fossil fuels had been used to generate the same amount of energy.
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