Don’t believe the hype: Biomass is an environmental disaster

As the biomass industry scales up, Frances Howe warns of the dangers of relying on a volatile, destructive industry to solve our energy problems.

April 17, 2018
7 min read

Ahoskie Plant. Photo: Southern Environmental Law Centre.

The next fortnight will see two major events in the biomass industry’s calendar. Activists are planning responses in solidarity with communities affected by the industry.

From 17th-19th April, London will host the world’s largest biomass conference. Wood pellet and energy companies will be joined by government ministers including from the EU and Malaysia. A week later, Drax Plc, operator of the world’s largest biomass power station in Yorkshire, will hold its Annual General Meeting in York.

Biofuel often bills itself as a greener alternative to fossil fuels – and is certainly less of a concern in the public consciousness. But in reality, it threatens environmental disaster. Despite the UK being the world’s largest importer of wood pellets and home to Drax, biomass energy is relatively low on most climate activists’ agenda here. If the industry keeps growing, so must the strength of opposition to it.

Forest destruction

The UK already imports pellets made from 13.5 million tonnes of wood for electricity – all of which are currently burnt at Drax Power Station. This produces just  0.74% of the UK’s final energy demand. Pellet burning is set to increase as Lynemouth and MGT Teesside power stations come online in later 2018 and 2020 respectively, both with deals in place to source pellets from the southern US. The UK only produces around 11 million tonnes of wood each year. This level of import dependency can never be sustainable, however often companies like Drax slap the word ‘sustainable’ in front of ‘biomass’. And biomass has such a high land footprint that the UK could never become self-sustaining for biomass for electricity.

According to the US Southern Environmental Law Centre:

Supplying the U.K.’s demand for wood pellets in 2016 alone required harvesting approximately 303 square km of forests in the southeastern U.S. At this level of demand, in a little over one year the U.K. will have harvested an area the size of the New Forest in England (376 sq. km, or more than 50,000 Wembley stadiums) for pellet production.”

These Southeastern coastal forests in the US (where 59% of Drax’s pellets come from) are home to bears, endangered red wolves, salamanders, rare birds and over 1,800 endemic plants. According to a 2015 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the potential pellet sourcing area for existing and proposed mills includes “critical habitat for 25 species that are federally listed as endangered or imperilled”. The area has been classified as a biodiversity hotspot, with 85% of its habitat already destroyed. Biomass is only adding to existing pressures on the forests.

Whilst many of Drax’s pellets come from clearcut biodiverse forests, some come from tree plantations, which are biodiversity deserts. The Southern Environmental Law Centre concludes:

Increased demand for woody biomass will continue to exacerbate the pressures facing these forests by incentivizing the harvest of whole trees and the conversion of natural forests to monoculture pine plantations.”

Environmental injustice

In the southern States, where these forests are being cut and processed, low income people of colour suffer disproportionately from high rates of cancer, asthma and other health problems. Pellet companies exacerbate existing environmental injustice by siting dusty, polluting and noisy facilities in communities already disadvantaged by industrial pollution and social inequality.  A resident of Richmond County, North Carolina, where Drax’s major supplier Enviva is planning another pellet mill to supply the UK, explains:

The polluters, the big companies …continue to put their pollution in vulnerable areas where people don’t have the money to fight against them, where people have been disenfranchised over the years. So they go to African American communities and poorer communities.

While we are protesting these events in the UK, activists across the Atlantic will be touring America’s southern states, to highlight the links between social inequity and ecosystem destruction and call for “100% clean energy for 100% of the people”. According to Danna Smith from the Dogwood Alliance:

“In the same way we need a just transition away from resource extraction in the coal fields of Appalachia, there is growing recognition that we need a just transition in the forest economy of the Southern Coastal Plain to one that values the community benefits of standing forests.”

Biomass and Climate

As if this wasn’t enough, biomass is not all it’s cracked up to be as a solution to the climate crisis. Burning wood often emits more CO2 at the smoke stack than coal per unit of energy generated. Biomass proponents tell us we can ignore these emissions because they will be reabsorbed by future tree growth; however, new trees won’t reabsorb thee carbon emitted from burning trees now for decades, if ever – and we need to urgently reduce our carbon emissions without delay if we are to have any chance of remaining within 1.5 degrees of global warming.

Keep chipping away

At the moment, despite a lot of noise from the industry and misguided announcements by governments that they plan to burn more biomass to replace coal, only Drax is importing wood pellets to the UK (and being kept afloat by £2 million a day in government subsidies to do so). The biomass industry is on the cusp of expansion, but this isn’t guaranteed. The demise of coal should be an opportunity to radically overhaul our energy system and culture. We need to expose the false solutions and keep pushing for something genuinely sustainable and democratic; and to stand in solidarity with the communities and ecosystems affected by forest destruction.

To find out more about the campaign, visit biofuelwatch.org.uk