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Is biomass conversion the next deforestation threat?

From the Innovation Forum weeky eBrief newsletter. Sign up for it here.

The rush to convert coal fired power stations to biomass might be causing more harm than good, and threatening North American forests

For companies that are committed to sustainability, action to combat deforestation is commonly concentrated in tropical regions.

In Brazil and Indonesia, for example, deforestation is driven by demand for commodities such as palm oil, or for timber for paper, furniture and other products. This demand is not going to go away, and therefore the priority for companies is to make sure it is managed more responsibly and sustainably.

But a new threat to the forests looms – and the main effect will not necessarily be felt in the tropics.

Pellet pursuit 

Some European countries, in pursuit of renewable energy targets, are demanding ever larger consignments of wood pellets to burn in power stations, potentially putting a heavy strain on northern forests, especially in Canada and the United States.

In what might prove to be an ultimately unsustainable false dawn in the renewables revolution, coal-fired power plants are being converted to burn biomass instead.

This has found favour in the United Kingdom in particular, where government policy on renewables tends to be to work with utilities to green their operations – for example through biomass conversion, or by establishing large offshore wind farms. This approach perpetuates the centralised model of electricity generation in large power plants.

Other countries are taking a different route. In Germany, for example, more emphasis has been placed on subsidies for solar power, encouraging homeowners and companies to generate their own electricity. This is potentially disruptive for the utilities. If pursued to the logical conclusion, with every power user generating what they need, it would put the utilities out of business.

Vast consumption

In the UK, the massive Drax power station plans to become “predominantly biomass-fuelled”. Another planned conversion, at Lynemouth in northern England, has been queried by the European commission because of concerns that the UK government is providing an excessive subsidy.
Plants such as Drax and Lynemouth will consume vast mountains of wood pellets. Lynemouth will need 1.5m tonnes per year, according to the European commission. Volumes at Drax could be more than double this. There is not enough homegrown UK biomass to meet this demand, so most will be shipped in from Canada and the US.

NA deforestation threat 

For environmental groups, alarm bells are ringing. Biomass contains less energy than coal and so more of it is needed to produce the same result. There is concern that, if North America is to meet growing European demand for wood pellets, the result could be deforestation or degradation of natural forests.

The Biofuelwatch campaign group says that coal to biomass conversion is “replacing one disaster with another”, while the Dogwood Alliance, a nonprofit that campaigns for protection for the forests of the southern United States, has even taken to sending delegations to Brussels and London to “stop the destruction of our forests for electricity”.

Is green really brown?

Companies might also be concerned. Many have switched to “green” electricity as part of their carbon neutrality strategies. But is electricity from plants that now burn biomass instead of coal really green?

Companies might want at least to ensure that, if their electricity comes from a converted coal plant, biomass certification is in place from organisations such as the Forest Stewardship Council or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. However matters develop, though, what seems certain is that the sustainable biomass debate is not going to be resolved quickly.

If you’ve any comments, do get in touch


How business can tackle deforestation

Understand deforestation risk, benchmark your policies and collaborate effectively with NGOs

14th-15th April, 2015, Washington DC

This global event combatting deforestation – a follow up to a London meeting in October 2014 – is designed to be an annual meeting place that discusses the trends, debates the issues, connects the key players and drives change.

Through an interactive and engaging agenda, and by bringing together the corporate practitioners and NGOs that make a difference, the conference is designed to bring maximum value – and maximum action.

Amongst the 40 speakers taking part in debates:

Dr Simon Lord, Group Director for Sustainability, New Britain Palm Oil Limited
Paige Goff, Vice President, Sustainability & Business Communications, Domtar
Ben Vreeburg, Sustainability Director, IOI Loders Croklaan
Julie Felgar, Managing Director, Environment and Aviation Policy, Boeing
Dr. Beth Stevens, SVP Environment & Conservation, Disney
Jean B. Sweeney, Vice President, Environment, Health and Safety, 3M
Stephen Rumsey, Chairman, Permian Global
Leela Barrock, group head communications and corporate affairs, Sime Darby
Bill Shireman, president & CEO, Future 500
Simo Honkanen, senior vice president sustainability and public affairs, Neste Oil
Michiel Hendriksz, director of sustainability, ADM
Eric Boyle, senior manager sourcing, Hershey Company