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REA: don't confuse biomass with 'bad forestry'

Environmentalists are trying to block the expansion of a transatlantic trade bringing American wood to burn in European power stations, said BBC News last week. Yet UK-based biomass supporters say the problem lies with bad forestry practices and not biomass-derived energy.

by Josie Le Blond

Millions of tonnes of wood pellets produced in US swamp forests are being shipped to Europe to be burned in wood-fired power stations, according to a BBC report broadcast.

The burgeoning trade in US waste wood is being driven by a spate of conversions of coal-fired plants to wood-fired plants in the scramble to meet the EU's looming renewable energy targets. The UK's Drax power station in Yorkshire, for example, is set to convert half its facility from coal to wood-burning in coming years, said the report.

Yet critics, who question whether power generated from wood-burning should be classed as renewable, fear the expanding transatlantic trade threatens Europe's carbon emissions reduction targets and are concerned for the conservation of US natural swamp forests and wildlife.

However, advocates of using biomass to generate heat and electricity say burning low-value waste wood from trees thinned out in US timber plantations is both a cost-effective and low-carbon energy solution for Europe.

“As well as being a cost-effective fuel for heating purposes, wood provides an excellent fuel for baseload power generation. It helps keep the lights on and is low carbon,” said Gaynor Hartnell, Chief Executive of the UK-based non-profit trade association Renewable Energy Association, responding to the BBC report.

Hartnell said that as long as forestry is practiced sustainably, there will be no delay in the carbon sink created by new trees planted to replace what has been harvested.

“Provided that wood is harvested at a slower rate than it grows, the net effect is carbon saving,” said Hartnell. “The biomass industry supports strong regulation and only wants to use timber from sustainably managed forest.”

The problem, she said, lies not with generating energy from biomass with forestry practice and not biomass itself.

“We welcome the environmental NGOs’ campaigning against bad forestry practices, but it makes no sense for them to campaign against the concept of using biomass for energy.”

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