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Green Campaigners Turn Against Green Energy

Lucy Kinder and Louise Gray, The Daily Telegraph

Plans to tackle climate change by encouraging power stations to convert to biomass are ‘carbon fraud’, according to environmental groups, who claim electricity from burning trees is dirtier than coal.

Power stations around the UK are being encouraged to burn wood as part of plans to cut carbon emissions.

The Government claims that burning “biomass” is carbon neutral and offers subsidies to power stations for converting from coal to wood.

Drax, the country’s biggest coal-fired power station, is aiming to take half of its fuel from biomass and Eggborough has announced its intention to fully convert to burning wood.

The amount of biomass burned for electricity has doubled over the past year to about 3 million tons and is expected to increase ten-fold by 2017, meaning most of the wood will have to come from abroad. Already half the biomass burned is imported.

However, a damning new report by the RSPB, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth points out that in fact burning wood from whole trees produces more carbon than burning coal per unit of electricity.

This is because newly cut wood is wet and bulky, meaning it has already produced carbon being transported to the power stations from as far away as New Zealand and being dried out.

Also, because wood is almost half water by weight, you need a lot more to produce the same amount of energy as coal – and therefore more carbon.

Even if the trees are replanted in an attempt to compensate, it could take decades for the same amount of carbon to be absorbed.

But to avoid dangerous climate change the world needs global emissions to peak in the next couple of years.

Harry Huyton, head of climate policy at RSPB, pointed out that the whole point of the subsidies is to slow the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere in the short term.

“When trees are burnt in power stations, CO2 comes out of the chimney, just like it does when you burn coal. The difference is that the wood is less energy-dense and is wetter than coal, so it takes a lot more energy to harvest, transport, process, and finally burn it.

“Government has justified burning trees in power stations by claiming the chimney emissions are offset by the carbon that the forest takes in when it re-grows after being harvested, but this is misleading. It can take decades, if not centuries for the trees to recapture that carbon, leaving us with more emissions in the atmosphere now – when we least need it.”

Doug Parr, Policy Director from Greenpeace UK, said it was “fraudulent” to claim burning trees is more green than coal.

“It’s time to end the fiction that burning wood is carbon free. If we don’t get the arithmetic right on the real impacts of biomass energy, our carbon budgets will be more like carbon fraud.”

Kenneth Richter, Friends of the Earth’s biofuels campaigner, said it was “absurd” to pay subsidies to power stations to burn trees.

At least 50 per cent of biomass is from trees abroad, mostly the US but also Canada, South Africa and New Zealand. This will increase as the demand for biomass goes up.

“Burning imported trees is worse for the climate than burning coal – it’s absurd that the Government is spending millions of pounds subsidising it.”

The report recommends that instead of burning whole trees, power stations should only burn waste products or wood from sustainable supplies such as UK coppice woods.

Also, wood burning stoves are sustainable on a small scale because they are more efficient than burning wood in a power station and support local woodland.

Drax claimed most of the wood they use is “leftovers” from the forestry industry, after the best material has been taken for furniture etc.

When whole trees are used it is from sustainable woodland that is constantly being replanted. For example huge forests are being planted in Virginia in the US to make up for the loss of tobacco plantations.

A spokesman explained that biomass remains carbon neutral as long as wood is taken from a managed woodland where trees are constantly being planted to replace those felled and absorb CO2 over time.

“This report misses the key points that most of the biomass used in electricity generation comes from the wood left over once other industries, for example furniture and paper, have taken their share, that managed forests absorb far more carbon than under-managed forests and that provided bioenergy comes from sustainably managed forests where growth is in excess of harvest there is no ‘carbon debt’, not even in the short term.”

A Department of Energy and Climate Change spokesman also insisted biomass is worthwhile.

“Biomass, alongside other renewables, will make a crucial contribution to the UK meeting its renewable energy targets and carbon budgets.

“We have robust rules in place to calculate the emissions from bioenergy, which take into account the energy used in harvesting, processing and transporting it.”

“DECC is continually gathering further evidence to ensure these calculations are up to date and that future bioenergy has low associated greenhouse gas emissions.”

The Daily Telegraph, 13 November 2012