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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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  • Pete

    Come on! Burning American wood for British electricity is highly inefficient.

    • Andrew Allison

      You don’t understand. This is a green initiative (biomass vs coal), and efficiency is irrelevant.

  • Frank Natoli

    Oh, using wood pellets is a great idea. Had a 65,000 BTU Harman pellet stove installed four years ago. First three years, you could get a ton of pellets on a pallet from Home Depot or Lowe’s for $180 while fuel oil, courtesy our national non-energy policy was near $4/gallon. Then, EVERYBODY figured this out, and a ton of pellets went to $270 but happily fuel oil, courtesy of hydraulic fracturing on private land, was $1.55/gallon at the last delivery. If American wood pellets become exports, why do I have a feeling a ton will quickly go over $300/ton? It is very retro. Our ancestors were burning wood for tens of thousands of years. As long as fuel oil stays cheap, who cares about the price of wood pellets. But if the environmental maniacs, which regrettably includes this site, regain control over U.S. petroleum production, that will change.

  • Jim__L

    Guys, there are so many other good uses for wood — why are they burning it??

    • Andrew Allison

      Jim, the pellets are made from trash, see the link above.

  • Fat_Man

    Shh! We are making money selling them sawdust. It is enough to make me proud of Yankee ingenuity.

  • Andrew Allison

    A couple of questions: were the unidentified “scientists” actual scientists or climate scientists, and why on earth would a company in the business of selling wood not replant? The argument against pellets is that they return to the atmosphere the CO2 which the trees sequestered. The argument for them is that they are much, much cleaner than coal or oil. How about some informed discussion of the pros and cons rather than hypotheticals about unscrupulous businessmen?

  • Proud Skeptic

    I switched from an oil boiler to a pellet one a couple of years ago. At the old price of oil, it would have saved me over $1000 a year. Then, of course, the price of oil plummeted. Who’da thunk it? Oh, well, at least I can rub my green eco righteousness in people’s faces!

  • ljgude

    In 1950 I was standing looking west from the back yard of our New Hampshire farm with a man well into his 80s. You can see all the way across Vermont to NY State from that vantage point in western New Hampshire. What that old man told me was there was not a tree to be seen from where we stood when he was a boy. They had clear cut the whole Connecticut river valley by the late 19th century. Firewood had to be brought in from Canada. Fortunately trees grow back quickly in those parts, and in the course of my lifetime most of the fields visible in the 50s are grown up in trees. So I am less than enthralled about the south being denuded of its loblolly pines just to prop up some regulatory fantasy in Euroland.

    • f1b0nacc1

      The tree farms that they are using to support this con game (Fat Man has it EXACTLY right!) are just that….farms of fast growing softwoods (pine, etc.) that are replanted and regrown very, very quickly. This is the same reason that paper recycling is so utterly silly….the raw materials are grown quickly and easily, so there is very little environmental impact from their production. We aren’t ‘denuding’ anything….

  • f1b0nacc1

    Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?

    • Andrew Allison
      • f1b0nacc1

        Not a Beatles fan I see

        • Andrew Allison

          Au contraire mon frere. The Beatles are my favorite example of what “classical music” really means, namely timeless. It will be as well-received in 2156 as it was in 1956.

          • f1b0nacc1

            And again we agree….in fact I have some of the Fab Four on in the background even as I type this…

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