WHICH source of renewable energy is most important to the European Union? Solar power, perhaps? (Europe has three-quarters of the world’s total installed capacity of solar photovoltaic energy.) Or wind? (Germany trebled its wind-power capacity in the past decade.) The answer is neither. By far the largest so-called renewable fuel used in Europe is wood.
In its various forms, from sticks to pellets to sawdust, wood (or to use its fashionable name, biomass) accounts for about half of Europe’s renewable-energy consumption. In some countries, such as Poland and Finland, wood meets more than 80% of renewable-energy demand. Even in Germany, home of the Energiewende (energy transformation) which has poured huge subsidies into wind and solar power, 38% of non-fossil fuel consumption comes from the stuff. After years in which European governments have boasted about their high-tech, low-carbon energy revolution, the main beneficiary seems to be the favoured fuel of pre-industrial societies.
The idea that wood is low in carbon sounds bizarre. But the original argument for including it in the EU’s list of renewable-energy supplies was respectable. If wood used in a power station comes from properly managed forests, then the carbon that billows out of the chimney can be offset by the carbon that is captured and stored in newly planted trees. Wood can be carbon-neutral. Whether it actually turns out to be is a different matter. But once the decision had been taken to call it a renewable, its usage soared.
Thunder Bay power plant fires up on biomass
The fuel, also known as a black wood pellet, has similar handling and storage characteristics to coal. It’s made from lumber mill sawdust and is imported from Norway.
The OPG release said it contains 75 less nitrogen oxide than coal emissions and virtually no sulphur dioxide.
The cost of the conversion was $5 million.
Provincial Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli said this new fuel technology makes Ontario “a leader” in building clean energy systems.
UK power stations are burning wood from US forests—to meet renewables targets
Trucking wood pellets to a port and transporting them by ship isn’t a deal-breaker.
Last year, 6 million tonnes of “wood pellets” harvested from forests in Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Virginia were shipped across the Atlantic, to be burnt in renewable “biomass” power plants. This was almost double the 2013 figure—the US “wood pellet” industry is booming.
Demand is largely driven by European countries wanting to meet targets set out in the EU’sRenewable Energy Directive. Half of the pellets exported from the US were used to generate electricity in Britain’s massive Drax power station, which is slowly converting from coal to biomass in order to reduce carbon emissions and claim valuable “Renewable Obligation certificates” for green electricity. So can it really be sustainable to transport wood halfway round the world to burn in a power station?
Many environmentalists don’t think so. A consortium of NGOs recently argued that the EU should exclude wood from its renewable energy targets. They claim the industry is felling large areas ofhardwood wetland forests across the south-eastern US, causing a loss of biodiversity and a net increase in carbon emissions. Even when the forest regrows it does not store as much carbon in biomass and soils as the original—and it’s certainly not as good for wildlife.