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A nursery of loblolly pine – approx. 500,000 in view, all waiting to be dispatched and planted (c. 1,000 acres). Photo: Drax Group.
A nursery of loblolly pine – approx. 500,000 in view, all waiting to be dispatched and planted (c. 1,000 acres). Photo: Drax Group.
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  • Various stands of forest of five ages demonstrating sustainable management. Photo: Drax Group.
    Various stands of forest of five ages demonstrating sustainable management. Photo: Drax Group.
  • Matthew Rivers, Drax Group Head of Sustainability, and Chairman, Drax Biomass Inc. Photo: Drax Group.
    Matthew Rivers, Drax Group Head of Sustainability, and Chairman, Drax Biomass Inc. Photo: Drax Group.

Biomass for energy is the common sense option

Matthew Rivers

5th June 2015

Today UK campaigners against burning biomass for power will deliver a 110,000 signature petition to DECC to protest at government subsidies for the practice. But in this 'Right of Reply' article Matthew Rivers, chairman of Drax Biomass, argues that biomass combustion is sustainable, benign, and helps to conserve forests worldwide.

Sustainable biomass offers a direct and affordable means of replacing fossil fuels with a renewable and we should be grabbing the opportunity with both hands.

In April The Ecologist published an article based on an open letter written by several campaign groups to the UK government calling for an end to biomass subsidies.

As the UK's largest biomass user I want to explain why our investments are the common sense option for the UK.

The primary source of our fuel, wood pellets, originates from forests in the US and Canada. That does not mean however, as the article states, that Drax is "ravaging biodiverse forests". In fact, like the forest products industry with which we co-exist, the vast majority of our product comes from privately-owned, commercially managed forests.

These forests have been managed for generations and the industry is sustainable by definition - if all the trees were chopped down and not replanted there would be no industry! In fact, as 100 US forestry experts recently told the UK government, creating an economic incentive for wood and its bi-products leads to increased forest area.1

Conversely if demand for forest products decreases there is a real danger forested land will be converted to other uses.

If you don't beleive me, look at the evidence!

The evidence proves what these experts say. US forest growth has consistently exceeded the harvest for each of the last 50 years. US forest cover today is well over 766 million acres, or approximately one third of the entire US landmass, and is around the same area as was covered in 1910. Drax's demand for wood is categorically not leading to deforestation of these areas.

The authors also misleadingly claim that Drax's use of 'whole trees' undermines our legitimacy to claim that our biomass is sustainably sourced and low-carbon. The fact is that Drax is independently audited to ensure we operate under the UK's strict sustainability rules and to prove the biomass we use delivers emissions savings of over 80% compared with coal.

We publish the data of exactly where our sustainable biomass originates (here). We do use 'whole trees' (as per a dictionary definition). We do use those parts of a tree crop that are not suitable for a better or higher paying market.

There can be thinnings which are removed from the forest as a normal part of good forestry management to provide growing space for a sawlog crop; or those misshapen and diseased trees not suitable for any other use.

Meeting our energy needs

With the sustainability safeguards in place policymakers are convinced that biomass has a role to play and so are the British people - more than two-thirds of Brits support the use of the technology in the UK.2 They do so because it satisfies the three primary objectives of a common sense energy policy: it is low-carbon, dependable and affordable.

Low-carbon: Drax's sustainably sourced biomass has a carbon footprint which is 86% less than the coal it is replacing. Drax is, in fact, the single largest renewable energy generator in the UK. We are also Europe's largest decarbonisation project which will save around 12 million tonnes of carbon per year, equivalent to taking the emission equivalent of 10% of the UK's cars off the road.

Dependable: Electricity cannot currently be stored at scale. So, in order to efficiently manage the UK grid it is critical that we have power plants able to respond quickly to changes in demand. Biomass generation is almost unique as a renewable since it can both perform as a 24x7 provider but is also flexible but is also capable of being rapidly flexed to match demand. Most other renewables are weather-dependent and therefore cannot fulfil that vital function.

Affordable: Sustainable biomass is one of the most affordable low-carbon technologies available. Biomass conversions make use of existing generating plant and grid assets, reducing the need to build expensive new infrastructure from scratch. Research published by DECC has found that the average cost of every tonne of carbon saved through the use of biomass conversion is £50-60, compared to £200 per tonne of carbon saved through the use of offshore wind.

Biomass makes good sense

For all of these reasons, sustainably sourced biomass is the common sense option for Britain. No technology perfectly achieves the holy trinity of being affordable, dependable and zero-carbon so we must be balanced in how we choose our technologies.

Sustainable biomass offers a direct and affordable means of replacing fossil fuels with a renewable and we should be grabbing the opportunity with both hands.

 


 

Matthew Rivers is Drax Group Head of Sustainability, and Chairman, Drax Biomass Inc. He is responsible for the Group's sustainability policy and strategy. Additionally, Matthew is Chairman of the US business, Drax Biomass Inc., and has Group level responsibility for these upstream investment activities.

Matthew has previously been the Director, Energy Biomass and then Director, Overseas Wood & Biomass Sourcing at UPM in Finland. Prior to that Matthew was Managing Director of Forestal Oriental in Uruguay, responsible for plantation management and wood supply. Matthew has also been Managing Director, UPM Tilhill, the UK's largest private sector forest management and timber harvesting business.  He is also a member of the Board of the US Industrial Pellet Association (USIPA) and a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Foresters.

Original article on The Ecologist: 'End support for Drax: stop subsidies for biomass power and phase out coal!'

References

1 'Greens can't see the wood for the trees' - The Times, 15 Dec 2014.

2 DECC Public Attitudes Tracker - Wave 12.

 

 

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