The growth in ‘green’ energy has been a staple in recent UK energy policies, which have traditionally been dominated by a proliferation of gas power stations, large-scale fracking, government support for nuclear power and a bonanza in oil licenses.
The share of electricity classed as renewable reached 9.4% in 2011 and, according to a recent study by Virgin, green energy firms account for 25% of Britain’s top 20 fastest growing private enterprises. Unfortunately, such reports hide the rise of another dangerous, high-carbon and polluting form of energy: large amounts of mainly imported biomass, used to generate electricity.
Biomass, of course, is hardly a new form of energy. Wood has provided heat and fuel for cooking throughout most of human history and some three billion people worldwide still rely on it. Many societies and communities have found ways to meet low energy needs sustainably using local biomass, but industrial demand for wood has contributed significantly to British and European deforestation. What is unprecedented is the widespread use of wood for electricity generation and the creation of a new global trade in wood pellets and woodchips.
The government and large energy companies are eager to see the UK become a global leader in this new biomass electricity sector. They claim that bio-energy could provide as much as 11% of all energy used in the UK – the lion’s share of the 15% renewable energy target.
The British energy company RWE has created the world’s largest biomass power station by converting the Tilbury B power station from coal to biomass. This record may soon be broken by projects at the Drax, Eggborough and Ironbridge power stations, all of which are to be converted to burning 50-100% wood. Coal-to-biomass conversions which have been authorised already would burn pellets made from 63 million tonnes of wood every year – six times the UK’s total annual wood production. Add to this the tens of million of tonnes which would be burned if proposed biomass power stations were constructed. All of these projects rely on expected government subsidies of more than £3 billion a year with money coming from the “Green Investment Bank”, a new government initiative.
The greatly increased demand for wood will necessitate additional imports and further deforestation. Currently, British wood imports are sourced from the southern US, Canada, Russia, the Baltic States and, to a lesser extent, from Scandinavia. Highly bio-diverse forests have already been destroyed and converted to monoculture pine plantations for pulp and paper in the American South. Destruction is now accelerating due to pellet exports to the UK, and similar developments unfold in Canada, Russia and Scandinavia.
Burning wood emits 50% more carbon dioxide than burning coal per unit of electricity. In theory, new trees will absorb that carbon dioxide again. It takes only minutes to burn a tree, but it takes many years for a new one to grow. Pushing up carbon dioxide levels for at least another generation has disastrous consequences.
In the long term, energy companies are hoping to import pellets from fast growing eucalyptus trees in countries like Brazil, where large numbers of indigenous people and small farmers have already lost their land and livelihoods, and where bio-diverse savannah is being replaced by monocultures. Eucalyptyus is also known to contribute to drought and desertification.
In the UK, communities close to proposed biomass power stations fear pollution and ill health. Communities long-affected by high levels of pollution from Tilbury B and Ironbridge will face decades of additional environmental effects as the current coal-fired power station will be converted to burning wood rather than closing down.
It is essential for campaigners to call not simply for ‘more renewable energy’ but to be explicit about what types of genuine renewables are needed, coupled with reductions in overall energy use. Otherwise, we are simply supporting big energy companies in their decimation of other countries’ forests.
More money for the ‘Green Investment Bank’ will mean more money for biomass power stations, for bio-fuels and waste incinerators. Support for the Renewable Energy Association, the lobby group for the renewables industry in the UK, unfortunately implies support for their “Back Biomass” campaign. A new definition of renewable energy is needed. Above all, climate justice requires a strong stance against the new land and forest grabs by energy companies in the name of ‘bio-energy’.
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