Wood Pellets, Drax and Deforestation

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

Concluding comments

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.

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30 Responses to Wood Pellets, Drax and Deforestation

  1. skepteco says:

    I heard a talk by Rebecca heaton, head of sustainability at DRAX, here at Bangor University, Wales a couple of weeks ago. She explained, as you say, that the wood used is mainly waste and thinnings- but that includes the tops and branches of trees harvested for sawlog, which is far too valuable to burn. So it seems unlikely to me forests are being cleared for wood pellets. Waste wood that is not burned will just rot in the forest and give off much of its carbon as it rots anyway. A well-managed forest, properly thinned, will give better sawlogs and also give off less CO2 from rotting wood. So this needs to be taken into account also- it is this that is used to justify rating wood as carbon neutral, that if it wasnt burnt it would soon release carbon anyway. The same applies to other wood products- paper has a very short half-life, and fiber board only a few years.

    What was more interesting was that she told us that the reason they source wood in the US: because they are subsidised and have come under fire from other UK timber users (fiber board companies) who object to not getting the same subsidies. So it would be too politically sensitive for them as such a large new consumer who is also subsidised to buy in the UK.

    Everything else you say is completely valid ofcourse, but then, your last sentence does not seem something to be worried about: wood can clearly not supplant much coal or gas, so indeed it will not.

    However,it is not true to say that deforestation is the result from using wood- forests grow back, most wood products come from plantations anyway, and in Europe and the US, forest cover is increasing significantly. Historically, deforestation is a result of land conversion to agriculture, not use of wood per se.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      Skepteco, I guess we have to take Drax’ word for it that they are using “waste” wood. But I’m still a bit sceptical about that too. Gathering forest waste must be incredibly time consuming and energy intensive. And I don’t agree entirely that it was going to end up in the atmosphere in any case. Burning it still accelerates the release and it removes an important element of the biological forest cycle – i.e. rotting wood that returns nutrients to the soil.

      • Willem Post says:

        The “waste wood” and “scrap wood” statements are NEAR-total horse manure and show know-nothing thinking, or worse.

        Areal photographs show, MANAGED forest areas are clearcut and replanted; almost all US southeast forests are managed. It takes about 25 years to grow pine trees in the US southeast, about 40 years in the US northeast. I live in Vermont.

        Contrary to statements by the ill-informed and the soothing, self-serving PR statements by the wood folks, all of the biomass, i.e., trunks, branches, leaves of these “for export” trees are chipped and turned into sawdust (I watched them do it from a safe distance). That sawdust, plus the sawdust from other sources, are turned into pellets, which are shipped to UK power plants.

        The A to Z CO2 released, including the replanting and combustion, is about 12 (twelve) lb of CO2/kWh. At most 2 lb of CO2/kWh would be sequestered due to regrowth. The EU bureaucrats in Brussels applaud this, while criticizing/sneering the US ethanol-from-corn program!!!

        Excerpt from this article:


        A 2013 study, published in Environmental Research Letters, analyzed the CO2 equivalent emissions of exporting wood pellets from the US Southeast to the UK.

        A breakdown of the biomass lifecycle, according to GHG emissions, is as follows:
        See Table 4, which shows 5 of the 7 CO2 emissions components.

        – Pellet production accounts for about 48%
        – Shipping the pellets across the Atlantic Ocean accounts for about 31%
        – Burning the pellets accounts for about 10%*

        * Emissions due to combustion are about 1.8 kg of CO2/kg of pellets, or 1.8 lb CO2/lb of pellets.

        That means the A to Z process of getting wood from the forest, turning it into pellets, transporting the pellets from the US to power plants in the UK, and burning the pellets, would release about 1.8/0.1 = 18 kg of CO2/kg of pellets.

        If the power production is at an efficiency of 30%, then 7,750 Btu/lb of pellets x 2.2 lb/kg x 0.30/(3,413 Btu/kWh) = 1.5 kWh/kg of pellets would be produced, or 18/1.5 = 12 kg of CO2/kWh for the A to Z process, if CO2 sequestering by regrowth would be ignored.

        EVENTUALLY, 100% sequestering would, at the very most, offset about 2 of the 12 kg!!! Such an environmentally harmful way of having the UK, Germany, etc., meet their EU CO2 obligations should not even be allowed to exist by EU rules, and the US should not be aiding and abetting. However, some folks are making money.

        This is a far worse boondoggle than the US corn-to-ethanol program, which, on an A to Z basis, is about CO2-emission neutral, but is derided by the EU.


        The US Southeast exported to Europe about 1,650,000 ton and 3,250,000 ton of wood pellets in 2012 and 2013, respectively; likely 5.7 million ton in 2015.

        See URL, with photos, regarding the unsustainable clear cutting of US Southeast forests to enable Germany, UK, etc., to meet the EU CO2 emissions standards, because the EU declared biomass emissions to be CO2-free!! Germany, the UK, etc., are co-firing the pellets in their coal-fired power plants!!

        In the US Southeast many forests are managed. It takes about 20 – 25 years from harvest to harvest; in Maine about 35 – 40 years. One may wonder how long it would take to deplete the soil to significantly affect crop yields. If 3,250,000 ton were exported in 2013 (a lot more was harvested but not exported), that would be 1,300,000 cords/yr of wood being cut from a given area, and a same area being planted that has just been cut, etc. That means about 20 – 25 such areas are in various growth phases at any point in time; more area if more tonnage is exported.

        • Willem Post says:

          This replaces the last paragraph of my comment:

          In the US Southeast many forests are managed. In Georgia, with a flat topography, fast-growing fir trees are planted in rows on many square miles of land. Trees have trucks of about 1.5 foot when harvested. It takes about 20 – 25 years from harvest to harvest; in Maine about 35 – 40 years. One may wonder how long it would take to deplete the soil to significantly affect crop yields. If 3,250,000 ton of wood pellets were exported in 2013 (a lot more was produced, but not exported), at 7.2 ton/acre/y, about 450,000 acres of intensively managed forest would be required.

  2. Dave Rutledge says:

    Hi Euan,

    Great post.

    “I personally view deforestation as a major problem, more serious than burning coal right now.”

    I do not think deforestation is a problem in the US. The US is the largest industrial roundwood producer in the world, at 150Mt/y. Wood pellets are 7Mt/y, so it sounds like scrap levels so far.

    It does seem ironic that people in Alabama are making good money sending wood pellets to England while themselves enjoying coal-fired electricity at 11 cents/kWh. However, the people of Alabama are not responsible for English laws.


    • Euan Mearns says:

      Yes Dave, it does sound like scrap levels. Key question is how many multiples of 7 Mtpa there are before the business begins to bite into bone.

      One the one hand I see the sense in using the scraps, but on the other resent the hype that this is somehow saving the planet.

  3. Joe Public says:

    “Lynemouth will be paid a fixed price of £105 for every megawatt-hour of biomass-fired power it generates until 2027 ” [i.e. 10.5p/kWh]

    To put that into perspective, I’m in the UK & my electricity supplier charges me 9.726 p/kWh for ‘daytime’ power; and 7.979 p/kWh for ‘nighttime’ power.

  4. edmh says:

    Brilliant post just confirming the utter nonsense of Green thinking.

    This lecture by Dieter Helm is well worth listening to.


    Dieter Helm on “misguided” Huhne, Davey and Miliband

    I suppose he has to accept that CO2 is a problem but otherwise a brilliant exposee

    I wonder if common sense will every return the only hope is that the house of cards will collapse when the lights go out in the UK.

    But then the UK economy will go with it

    • Ed says:

      You may be surprised, edmh, there is a significant number so called “Greens” who agree with the main tenant of this article by Euan.

      • Euan Mearns says:

        Agreed there are many shades of Greenery. Just a pity that so many Green policies end up with environmental harm, food shortages and higher prices.

        Cant answer your question on Scotland. There does seem too be an awful lot of woodlands being cleared at the moment. Some of it part of the life cycle since so many forests were planted about 50 years ago.

    • Ed says:

      Here’s a general question I’ll throw out there. Could Drax use pellets sourced from Scotland if it was reforested ?

      If I have time this evening, I’ll have a go at answering this question myself. I’m sure MacKay has already done the calculations somewhere.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      I wonder if common sense will ever return?

      Its difficult to resist wishing for a disaster if this would result in the return of common sense and the exposure of Greenery for what it is.

    • Bernard Durand says:

      About Dieter Helm’s conference: Brillant, but typically of a mainstream economist who cannot see any physical limit to raw material production in the future. Saying that we can have in the future 5 countries producing for years 10 Mb/d each is nonsense. Since 2006, the world production of crude is steadily declining, and the increase in all liquids oil is due only to US shale oil. Furthermore, oil exports have also declined. Now that prices are no longer sufficient to sustain the shale oil boom, we could see soon the occurence of the peak oil which is denied by Helm.
      In China, peak coal is arriving, and it might be the real cause of its economic slowdown.
      Price is something else, and is poorly correlated with production. One can understand that exuberant consumerism of the western world has resulted in the strong growth of China, and that his period is ending, but this is true of all raw materials, and as a matter of fact we observe a fall of market prices for nearly everything, not only for oil. Furthermore, nobody has been able so far to predict correctly prices of raw maretrials, particutarly for oil.

  5. Doug M. says:

    “I do not think deforestation is a problem in the US. The US is the largest industrial roundwood producer in the world, at 150Mt/y. Wood pellets are 7Mt/y, so it sounds like scrap levels so far.”

    This. It’s not really worth getting excited about; it can’t scale up, and it won’t.

    So far wood pellets have been largely made from sawdust and scrap wood. That’s a net positive; that carbon was going to be released through decay anyway, and this way we get the energy out of it. The benefit is pretty marginal from a global perspective, but hey, energy is energy.

    Attempting to scale up beyond scrap, though, would very quickly bring the energy industry into conflict with the other bidders for wood products, most notably the paper and construction industries. Paper demand is notoriously inelastic; construction demand is notoriously variable, and driven by factors that are completely unrelated to the price or availability of wood. The supply of commercially available wood is pretty firmly fixed. So you’re moving into a realm where prices are broadly unpredictable, but tend to rise sharply with a rise in demand. That’s not a recipe for long-term success.

    Doug M.

    • skepteco says:

      see my comment above- DRAX are quite open about sourcing wood pellets from the US rather than competing with other wood consumers in the UK who are not subsidized.

  6. GeoffM says:

    I’m hoping that some energy blogger will investigate the story last week that apparently Uruguay “now” gets 95% of it’s electricity from renewables. Unfortunately I can’t see which 12 month period “now” refers to exactly. The reports state that biomass there was “ramped up”. The most recent data I can find is on IEA statistics which only goes as far as 2013 which states: 1 TWh from biomass, 8 TWh from hydro, 0.1 TWh from wind, 2 TWh from oil, (plus about 7 TWh equivalent from biomass for heating).
    But Uruguayan biomass consumption is tiny compared to the US, Indonesia and Brazil.

  7. Ted says:

    “I’m hoping that some energy blogger will investigate the story last week that apparently Uruguay “now” gets 95% of it’s electricity from renewables.”

    Been done. It’s almost all hydro.


  8. Ed says:

    Here’s a general question I’ll throw out there. Could Drax use pellets sourced from Scotland if it was reforested ?

    If I have time this evening, I’ll have a go at answering this question myself. I’m sure MacKay has already done the calculations somewhere.

    (sorry for the double post)

  9. robertok06 says:


    Just to let you know… I think some guys over at Judith Curry’s blog have used some of your graphs without referencing them…


  10. A C Osborn says:

    How anyone can think it is Green after actually reading the steps required to collect, produce, ship and store the pellets, which require twice the volume of coal for the same energy output and involves Diesel, electricity, Diesel and more dirty ship diesel and more diesel and then more electricity I just cannot understand.
    Even without the collection, production, shipping and storage costs it still releases twice as much CO2 as coal. There is also a much greater risks of fire with wood pellets as well.
    Especially when DRAX was built above a Coal Mine in the first place.
    I can sort of understand not wanting to waste the cutting but surely if you wanted to use it for Electricity Generation it would be to power the Saw Mills cutting the wood.

  11. garethbeer says:

    Caught the end of a part on Skye Views crap piece – they were looking at Co2 in the atmosphere with some sort of computer stimulation program, obviously the enviable co2 was presented in red, in great lumps, like play-doe floating through the atmosphere. All I can say, what a patronising pile of crap, co2 is 400ppm not 400% ffs!

    Agreed, we need power-cuts & major power probs to bring this lunacy to head!

  12. gweberbv says:

    If you want to produce energy from it, you should plant something that grows a little faster than wood. If Euans statement is correct, that the 3 generators at the Drax plant in 2017 (with roughly 2 GW capacity) will consume already 5% of theoretical available supply from the whole US, it is pure madness to use anything else than scarp wood.

    Just for comparison: Small Germany has now something like 4 GW of biomethan plants (running all the time). Most of these plants are of course also nonsense, but at least they do not eat up 10% of US wood production.

    What might be a good idea: Fostering the usage of wood for the construction of buildings. See here: http://www.binderholz.com/en/service-contact/news/details/10-hybrid-floors-made-of-bbs-steel-in-london/
    Carbon storage possible for hundreds of years and you need much less insulation material compared to walls made of concrete.

    Side remark: Annual Fraunhofer ISE budget is roughly 80 million euros.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      When I lived in Norway 1983 to 1991, I spent most of the time living in fabulous wooden built homes. But is it really practical for the millions living in Berlin? Space is a problem. And you need to look into details of C budgets – if that is what tickles your fancy.

      • gweberbv says:


        for sure wood it is not practical for re-building a city after visits by Bomber Harris and Mr. Schukow. But for the current rate of house building in ageing western societies, wood could and should be much more used. With modern technology you can build wooden houses with 5 to 10 floors.

  13. gaznotprom says:

    Think many of the fire regs dictate that concrete is needed in many modern builds..

  14. Euan, do you not see your own bias? “The Greens now want to take us back to pre-industrial squalor with bio mass and windmills.” Which “greens” support the cofiring of biomass at Drax? Here’s a picture of the UK Green Party leader protesting against this practice: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/apr/30/green-party-largest-number-candidates. In my experience, it is energy sector experts who support the cofiring of biomass, not necessarily environmental protectionists.

    And I can answer your question about the Fraunhofer website: my friend Bruno Burger works on Energy-Charts.de in his spare time without any funding: http://energytransition.de/2013/12/something-to-copy-from-germany-transparency-of-energy-data/.

    Greetings from Freiburg

    • Euan Mearns says:

      Craig, I’ll certainly accept there are a number of shades of Green and quite often I lump individuals and practices into “Green” wrongly. There are certain renewables / sustainability enthusiasts who quite certainly are not Green, David MacKay for one. Rightly or wrongly I use support for nuclear power as one diagnostic feature. On that basis I have respect for Jim Hansen who supports the only viable long-term option for Man.

      If you know Bruno, you could do me a favour and pass on these links to him. 2015 will be done by Friday.


  15. Bruce Armstrong says:

    Hi Euan, I’ve very much enjoyed your posts over the years and this one is no exception.

    The failure to consider the effects of their proposals at a ‘solution scale’ is common to virtually all of these supposed solutions. Like our politicians, the propmoters of these schemes are not to be trusted and it is necessary to do one’s own math to confirm their statements.

    Common sense and the numbers indicate that wood pellet fuel can only ever be a boutique solution. Suggesting it as a major export industry is totally insane, but no less insane than suggesting that the world’s aircraft can be powered by algal biofuel.

    I was at an algal aircraft biofuel talk recently. The proposal sounded good with an efficient and compact pond process, or at least it did until I scaled it form a single aircraft to the world fleet of about 30,000. The required area went from 200 hectares to a strip 15km wide by 4000km long, so it would be safe to say that this won’t happen, particularly as shipping and trucking will compete for the same fuel.

    In company with the climate change deniers, the business as usual world is highly resistant to any notion that we will have to fundamentally change our expectations and practises as this century progresses.

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