Once upon a time, back in the 19th century, the world population was below 2 billion and to a large extent used wood for heat and as building material for ships. Windmills, water wheels, draft animals and human slaves provided power for agriculture and industry. This led to deforestation of Europe and parts of North America. And then along came coal, steel and the steam engine. The industrial revolution was born and this led directly to over 7 billion people today. The Greens now want to take us back to pre-industrial squalor with bio mass and windmills.
Last week The Telegraph reported that Lynemouth coal power station was to convert to burning wood pellets following in the tracks of Drax. This post strives to quantify the impact this policy will have on deforestation and CO2 emissions.
How Long will US Forests Last?
I made the slide below several years ago now using data provided by Nate Hagens. What I say here depends on the accuracy of that data and the calculation was made from a perspective of peak oil, gas and coal and not from the perspective of CO2 emissions and climate change.
The bottom line is that if the USA were to stop using fossil fuels and use timber instead their hard wood forests would be cleared within 3 months causing immense environmental destruction. It was immediately obvious to me that you cannot run industrial society on wood.
Drax power station in Yorkshire was once Europe’s largest coal fired power station with capacity of 3960 MW comprising 6*660 MW generators. Two of these have already been converted to run on wood pellets imported from N America with a third unit due to be converted by 2017. According to Wikipedia, each unit will consume 2.3 million tonnes of wood pellets per annum and so by 2017 6.9 million tonnes in total. According to Drax they used 4.1 million tonnes in 2014, but they are operating below capacity (see below). Some simple maths using the Wikipedia numbers suggests that there is enough hard wood forest in the USA to feed Drax for 1000 years and with a 50 year forest re-generation period this is clearly feasible as the forest will re-generate faster than it is felled. So what is the problem? Note that Drax maintains they are using waste wood and thinnings but all numbers must ultimately be based on the size of the primary resource.
The heart of the problem lies in scale and false premise. Two Draxes would see the timber resource drop to 500 years. Twenty Draxes would see the resource drop to 50 years at which point this ceases to be sustainable with most of the US forests at various stages of destruction and / or re-generation. It is a sobering thought that the USA would even contemplate clearing all its hardwood forests in exchange for 40 GW of electricity generation (3*660*20). In terms of global emissions this is a drop in the ocean, and in fact burning wood may not actually reduce emissions at all.
So why is this being done? There are a number of reasons the primary one being that it enables Drax to remain operational in a UK energy climate that aims to phase out coal within a few years. But it is nothing more than a box ticking exercise. It will have zero effect on global CO2, it might in fact make things worse. Another factor is the creation of business opportunity in the USA. Wood pellets have become big business. Coal miners and frac truck drivers will be heading to Lousiana to find new careers as lumberjacks.
UK Grid Graphed
At this point I want to draw attention to a new initiative on Energy Matters. We have set ourselves the goal of graphing all of of the data from Gridwatch kindly provided to us by Leo Smith. The aim is to try and match the publications from Prof. Bruno Burger at Fraunhofer Institute in Germany. I don’t know what the budget is for Fraunhofer, but our’s is currently close to zero, a fact that will some time soon need to change.
An example of what you will find at UK Grid Graphed is shown below where the use of the bio mass burners at Drax can be observed. This is a work in progress but 2014 is now complete.
The biomass & other category is dominated by the two operational units at Drax. It can be seen that the 660 MW units are producing something short of 600 MW and are being used as both base load and cycled to provide load balancing (click on graphic to get a large readable copy). The two units are also working at well below capacity. More on UK grid graphed and the economy of this blog to follow in the coming weeks.
Wood is a Carbon Store
The Green Logic (note that Green Logic is a oxymoron) dictates that burning wood is good since the trees grow back and remove an amount of CO2 from the atmosphere equal to that added by their combustion. This may be true, but CO2 is added today and we have to wait for 50 years to see it removed. Add to that soil disturbance may add a lot more CO2 immediately. And add to that all the diesel and steel required to harvest, manufacture and transport the pellets. I think the best way to tell this story is in pictures.
There’s lots of them
Drax: where 60+% of the energy goes up the smoke stack
Drax maintains that they have multiple sources of pellets, some within the UK, and that they are mainly burning waste wood and not clear felled virgin timber. They make a big play on their environmentally caring credentials and adhering to regulations that appear not yet to have been written.
The USA followed by Canada are clearly the biggest sources, as are sawmill residues, forest residues and thinnings. The story of harvesting, transport and processing told above holds good. As does the problem of scaling.
However, The Mail recently carried a story called The Bonfire of Insanity claiming that woodlands in the USA were being cleared to fuel Drax.
The bonfire of insanity: Woodland is shipped 3,800 miles and burned in Drax power station. It belches out more CO2 than coal at a huge cost YOU pay for… and all for a cleaner, greener Britain!
Readers need to make up their own minds about where the truth lies on this one. 7 million tonnes a year of offcuts and nut husks seems an awful lot of waste wood. Of course it makes sense to burn organic waste rather than let it go to landfill, but all this is beside the point. This is quite simply not a scalable solution.
And looking at the series of pictures where we go from harvest to truck to factory to truck to ship to train to Drax, one needs to ask how much diesel is used and how much CO2 is released? The acid test is for the biomass / wood pellet industry to run exclusively on Green electricity, including the manufacture of all that steel.
All this is made possible by Green subsidies. This is what The Telegraph said about Lynemouth:
Lynemouth will be paid a fixed price of £105 for every megawatt-hour of biomass-fired power it generates until 2027 – well over double the current market price of power.
UK consumers and industry once again picking up the bill for transporting US woodlands to the UK via trucks, trains and ships all in the name of Big Green. I personally view deforestation as a major problem, more serious than burning coal right now. It is the forests that are the main sink for CO2. It should, in my opinion, be illegal to clear forests for industrial scale energy. And yet it is being encouraged by UK and EU Green energy strategies. Coal, the cheapest form of electricity generation, is being replaced by wood, one of the most expensive. The energy world is currently upside down.