UK Doubles Down on Burning American Wood

It’s not exactly a high-tech solution, but that’s not stopping the UK from embracing the practice of burning wood—sourced from the United States—to generate electricity as a step towards a greener future. Ars Technica reports:

Last year, 6 million tonnes of “wood pellets” harvested from forests in Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Virginia were shipped across the Atlantic, to be burnt in renewable “biomass” power plants. This was almost double the 2013 figure—the US “wood pellet” industry is booming.

Demand is largely driven by European countries wanting to meet targets set out in the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive. Half of the pellets exported from the US were used to generate electricity in Britain’s massive Drax power station, which is slowly converting from coal to biomass in order to reduce carbon emissions and claim valuable “Renewable Obligation certificates” for green electricity.

But biomass’s green merits are murky, to say the least. The vast majority of the southeastern U.S. forests that Britain sources its wood pellets from are privately held, and in 2014 a group of 60 scientists wrote to UK Energy Secretary Ed Davey warning that there wasn’t enough regulation in place to ensure that companies felling trees to ship them across the Atlantic were replanting them in a sustainable manner. If that replanting step isn’t dutifully followed, then biomass becomes a decidedly non-renewable and non-carbon neutral energy source. As the UK continues to ramp up its imports of American wood, unscrupulous companies will find even more profit incentive to clear cut swathes of land and fudge the replanting, making out with a quick buck while actually harming the environment, not saving it.

That’s not the only eyebrow-raising aspect of the UK’s plan to burn its way to a greener future, either. Biomass gains its carbon-neutral credibility when forests are replanted under the logic that those new trees will absorb enough carbon to offset the greenhouse gases released by burning biomass pellets. But this equation neglects to account for most of the biomass pellet production chain: cutting down trees, processing them, and shipping them across the Atlantic are all carbon-intensive activities that make any true carbon neutral claim by biomass boosters dubious at best.

Defenders of biomass fall back then to the claim that the energy source is cleaner than coal, but that’s not saying a whole lot. Countries across the EU are looking to these wood pellets to help meet renewable energy requirements set by Brussels, and while this may help some move slightly further away from more carbon-intensive energy sources in the short-term, it’s hardly a forward-looking solution.

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