Thursday, 19 May 2011

Wood energy - is a crisis coming?

I have an article in this week's Press and Journal special supplement on renewable energy. It discusses the pressure that one energy plant is putting on wood supplies and prices in the north. The Balcas plant, in Invergordon, creates wood pellets, which opens up opportunities for people who want to heat their buildings with wood but don't want, for whatever reason, to use logs. Which seems like a good thing - it will help people who currently heat with fossil fuels to shift to a renewable alternative.

But the plant also uses wood to generate electricity, or to adopt the jargon, it's a 'wood-to-wire' scheme, and there are serious criticisms of the very idea of using wood to feed something as inefficient as the national grid. We have a small, and finite, supply of wood and most of it is already used by existing sawmills and wood processors, yet there are proposals for new bioenergy plants that will create a demand that can't be met by the existing wood supply. Couple this with subsidies from the UK government for electricity generation and a situation is rapidly evolving where existing timber users, including those of us who heat our homes with logs, could find wood becoming expensive and in short supply.

The Scottish government has been pretty outspoken about the fact that the electricity subsidy regime and the promotion of wood-to-wire as a way to cut climate emissions are in fact perverse. They will stress an important part of our rural economy and, as the UK doesn't produce enough timber to meet the projected demand, they will further increase our footprint on other people's forests. We have so few productive forests that the UK already imports about 85% of our wood - if we extend our demands to burning wood to generate electricity, we will be responsible for even more deforestation and land-use-change to create plantations in other parts of the world.

I'm not the only one worried about this - there's a very active campaign being run by Biofuelwatch. One of the companies expressing concern about the effects of subsidies is Norbord - here's their statement. This week's article just begins to scratch the surface of a topic that I'd like to explore much more deeply in future.

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