Wood- and other biomass burning might not come to most people’s mind when thinking about extreme energy, such as fracking, methane hydrate mining, tar sands and other innovations in destroying nature and the atmosphere faster than ever. Biomass, after all, was the main energy source for most of human history and remains so amongst so in many of the poorest countries, which bear the least responsibility for climate change and environmental destruction.
Yet the biomass vision shared by the UK Government, Drax, RWE, E.On and other energy companies is one of big industrial bioenergy, on a scale never seen before and which is difficult to even imagine. Forests have been decimated for industrial bioenergy in the past: In the early 16th century, most of Ireland was covered in temperate rainforest, the Great Oak Forest, nearly all of which was cut down to make charcoal for metal smelting for the British navy from around 1550 .
Biomass power stations now planned across the UK and other European countries, however, will burn far more wood much faster than has ever been possible before. The world’s biggest existing biomass power station, the Jakobstad Power Station in Finland, belongs to the paper company UPM. It generates 265 MW of electricity though not all of this is from biomass – 45% comes from peat. UPM like just about any company that invests in bioenergy, take care to ensure that their wood is certified as ‘sustainable’. When a Scottish researcher, Mandy Haggith, went to see their forestry activities five years ago, the company manager pointed to a single birch tree left ‘as a home for woodpeckers and insects’ where diverse native forests had been clearcut . No matter if temperate, boreal or rainforests are clearcut, if communities are evicted for plantations, endangered species are wiped out – getting hold of a ‘sustainable forestry’ certificate is rarely a problem for the companies responsible.
This January RWE has claimed to have commissioned a biomass power station almost three times the size of the Jakobstad one: Tilbury B, converted from a coal power station, with a capacity to produce 750 MW of electricity from biomass. Most of it will be wood, imported from Canada, the US and European countries, according to RWE , though they can source it from wherever they like and can get it cheapest. A smaller but still substantial amount will be vegetable oil. There is nothing to suggest this will include palm oil – other than the facts that palm oil is by far the cheapest vegetable oil and that they own half the shares in an Italian company which has not only built a large power station but invested in large-scale new oil palm plantations in the Republic of Congo , Ethiopia and Nigeria. It is not clear at what scale the Tilbury B plant is operating – probably well below its capacity so far, but its capacity is clearly far bigger than that of any biomass power station in the world. And already, RWE are looking at buying and converting another coal power station at Lynemouth, Northumberland, to biomass .
Other energy companies are not far behind in the rush towards big biomass. Drax has so far been the UK’s number 1 biomass-user for electricity – co-firing more than one million tonnes of it with coal. Most of it is imported wood from North America, some even shipped in from South Africa . Drax has also had two planning applications for biomass power stations of 290 MW capacity each approved, in Immingham and Selby.
Overall, energy companies, including E.On, SSE, Peel Energy (aspirants to building the UK’s first new coal power station as well as burning biomass), MGT Power and Helius Energy, have announced power station plans which would require 60 million tonnes of wood a year to be burned – more than six times as much as all the wood the UK produces annually. Biomass power stations are about the least efficient way of generating electricity, wasting between 70 and 80% of the energy as heat.
Meantime, in Bristol and Portland, W4B has been granted planning permission for two palm oil power stations. Just one of them would, if built, double the use of palm oil in UK biofuels overnight.
Big biomass would make no economic sense to any of those companies if it wasn’t for public subsidies. Altogether, the biomass power stations announced so far would attract around £3 billion every year, paid as Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs), out of a levy on everyone’s electricity bills.
People concerned about the environment and human rights tend to have an idea what burning more palm oil will mean for forests and human rights in the global South. What about the impacts burning such vast quantities of wood? Excessive demand for wood is already one of the main causes of deforestation worldwide . More of it will mean more aggressive and destructive logging worldwide and more monoculture tree plantations, especially in the tropics and sub-tropics, where trees grow fastest. And eucalyptus, pine or acacia plantations are much the same disaster to small farmers, indigenous peoples, forests and wildlife as oil palm monocultures.
What about carbon emissions? A wood power station emits about 50% more carbon than a coal power one for the same amount of energy . True, a lot of the carbon released by burning wood may one day be absorbed by new trees. Yet it takes minutes to burn a tree but decades for a new tree to grow, especially in temperate and boreal climates – and we don’t have decades to spare before CO2 emissions and levels come down. When healthy forests and grasslands are turned into plantations, the carbon they once held will be lost forever and they will no longer be able to draw down carbon from the atmosphere as the would otherwise have done. It’s ultimately a moot point whether getting energy by obliterating forests and other ecosystems and burning vast numbers of trees or by burning fossil fuels are worse for the climate – we clearly can’t afford to do either.
To find out more about industrial bioenergy in the UK and how to get involved in campaigning against the subsidies behind it or individual power stations, please contact email@example.com and see www.biofuelwatch.org.uk
 Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland
 Mandy Haggith: Paper Trail
 Tilbury Biomass: The renovation of RWE npower’s Tilbury plant to a 750MWe renewable generator
 RWE’s Fri-el Green buys Congo palm farms for biofuel
 RIO TINTO SET FOR UK POWER PLANT SELL-OFF
 Coal plants’ biomass burning
 Getting to the Roots:Underlying Causes of Deforestation and Forest Degradation, and Drivers of Forest Restoration
 Carbon emissions from burning biomass for energy