What do you think of when you hear the words “renewable electricity”? For most of us it’s a positive association - conjuring up images of wind turbines, solar panels or wave, hydro and tidal power – technologies which could, if used properly, get us to a cleaner and fairer energy future.
But the term “renewable” is also used to describe the burning of wood in power stations to make electricity. And this raises major concerns. Last week there was a major announcement about the level of support the Government would provide to different types of renewable energy. One of the most significant parts of this was an increase in the incentive to use wood (or “biomass”) as well as coal in our coal-fired power stations.
Up in smoke
At the moment, the UK’s forests produce around 10 million tonnes of wood each year. Most of this wood is used for things like construction and manufacturing, and so isn’t really available to be burned. At the same time, we already burn almost 4 million tonnes of wood per year in power stations. Most of this wood is imported.
This means that we’re already burning more wood than we can easily produce ourselves and the Government’s plans to ramp up the use of biomass means we’ll need to find tens of millions of tonnes of cheap burnable wood from elsewhere in the world.
At the moment, there are few legal restrictions on where that wood could come from, which means that companies are likely to go for the cheapest possible growing land they can find. We know what that means from our experience with liquid biofuels – it means a high risk of problems like land-grabbing from the world's poorest people, rising food prices as land is diverted from growing food and the clearing of forests and other natural habitats to make way for fuel plantations.
The Government claims that all the wood fuel would need to meet a set of “sustainability standards” in order to be eligible for subsidies. However, just like with liquid biofuels, these standards are fairly weak - there are no standards in place to prevent the wood being grown on land that was seized or stolen from poor communities, increasing poverty and hunger. And crucially, the standards do not take into account the knock-on effects of turning land over to fuel crops - by increasing global demand for agricultural land, they make it more likely that forests or wetlands around the world will be chopped down or dug up. This means that wood fuels could appear to meet the UK’s “sustainability standards” while still causing serious environmental destruction and releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The bottom of the barrel
The new rules also allow up to 4% of all this biomass to come from liquid fuels such as biodiesel and bioethanol, which would divert yet more food crops away from hungry people and into power generation instead. It could also create a new market for the very worst liquid fuels – the ones which fail even the weak standards required to be classed as a “renewable” fuel for use in European transport.
Yes, we need “renewable energy” – but this isn’t it. The Government should stop subsidising large-scale wood burning, and support truly sustainable solutions instead.