“I’m late on this discussion through a lot of IT problems today.

I am shortly completing a book on Bioenergy on the UK (‘The Sleeping Giant Arises’) and have reviewed all uses of Bioenergy – transport, heat and power. I work in the Biomass Heating Sector and also manage a small woodland for biodiversity so have some practical experience. The so-called ‘debate’ is not really a scientific debate and has become distorted due to some big biases among NGOs and others. I spent a decade working for NGOs such as GP and FOE so am quite sympathetic to these groups. I just think that right now they have lost the plot on energy. The fact that some parts of Greenpeace are saying publically that Gas power is better than bioenergy and FOE’s Mike Child’s seems ready to support nuclear power, tells me they are losing their way (and potential moral force).

The whole debate has got completely distorted for what I believe are misguided reasons and based on bad science. The ‘Dirtier than Coal?’ report by the NGOs was a travesty. It was based on work by Searchinger who took the most extreme scenario, among hundreds of scenarios produced by Forest Research and North Energy Associates:

to show that burning trees in a power plant was ‘bad’. Mortimer and Matthews the main authors asked some fundamental questions including: “Is it better to leave wood in the forest or harvest it for timber, other wood products (e.g. panel boards) and/or fuel?” They concluded that: “policy should support managing UK forests to produce wood for products and bioenergy” And that’s a balanced answer from reviewing hundreds of options and counter-factuals.

Light through the forest

Of course you can pick a scenario whereby if you assume that your wood fuel is ‘stealing’ resource from higher-value added uses (construction, furniture), and use long established hardwood sources and then assume your data based on a single stand of trees over a short timescale, well yes you will come out with some bad numbers. If however you try and think more like a forester and manage woodland properly, and assume that any tree felling and management is within part of a wider landscape of trees of different ages, then bioenergy makes a lot of sense.

The numbers on carbon stack up and the concept of ‘carbon debt’ doesn’t hold. Recent work by Dr Martin Jungunger of Utrecht University shows that either ‘carbon debt’ doesn’t exist or it is very short even with adverse assumptions (Carbon payback period and carbon offset parity point of wood pellet production in the South-eastern United States, Jan Gerrit, Geurt Jonker, Martin Junginger and Andre Faaij, University of Utrecht).

What is this obsession with ‘whole trees’? Thousands of hectares of Lodgepole Pine in Scotland are growing distorted and have no higher added value? Thank god there is a pellet mill to use the wood! Come to my woods and tell me what to do with the many ‘bent’ softwood pine that have no value for construction. Leave it to rot and release the carbon and methane for no benefit or fossil fuel displacement?

I think some people are grasping for a magic energy bullet that can pull us out of the big hole we’re in on climate change. Assuming that the NGOs still support the 2 degrees Celsius global carbon budget limit (2DS), then are they really suggesting we can run the economy on wind power (I am a supporter), solar PV and electric cars? Do they think tidal power won’t get massive opposition from other NGOs? This is just not credible and allows critics to dismiss NGOs and go all out for Gas Fracking and nuclear. Bioenergy provides a rapid transition for all sectors and doesn’t suffer from intermittency issues and is cost-effective. When I look at the £90 billion that Hinckley C might cost us via EDF, then Biopower is really cheap.

Of course if you designed energy systems from scratch we wouldn’t start from here. While I understand that importing wood from the USA and burning it in 40% efficient power plant might seem hard for some, and we’d rather it burned in CHP plant at higher efficiency, right now we need to be doing a lot of things across the board and bioenergy has an important potential role. Importing tar sands oil from Canada is an awful lot worse.

To dismiss bioenergy by taking extreme ‘straw men’ scenarios, which is what the NGOs have done, threatens to lose a decade on serious short-term progress on climate change. We are potentially destroying some very important carbon reduction runs by NGOs chasing headlines.”

Stewart Boyle, Senior Associate, South east Wood Fuels (SEWF)

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