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Separating the Woodchip from the Trees

Biomass developments get a relatively high level of coverage in the field of sustainable technologies; some laud it as a major player in the move to a cleaner environment, while at the other end of the spectrum some brand it ‘Dirtier than Coal’.

10th May 2013    |     Peter Rolton: Chairman, Rolton Group

This ominous title featured at the head of a report recently released by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the RSPB, and since this paper’s publication, a storm has been gathering as representatives from both sides of the argument steel themselves for a very public battle.

Without recounting the accusations and reposts in their entirety, there now exists a clear division between the above cluster of niche organisations and the Renewable Energy Association (REA), who last week released a letter responding to the report. In this missive, Chief Executive Gaynor Hartnell states in no uncertain terms that the groups have done nothing but ‘[peddle] pseudo-science’. This had originally been sent privately, but was made public following an open letter to The Times which called for a cut back in biomass subsidies for fear that it will place too much demand on the UK’s forestry industry.

The crux of the issue forms around the type of biomass burnt in the production of energy, but what has been sidelined in much of the argument is that the industry has gone through huge changes since its inception. Where old plants may have failed to hit the sustainability mark by primarily burning virgin wood, current developments answer to much tougher regulations, and rely heavily on by-products and waste. There is a whole industry dedicated to waste management, salvaging as much viable fuel as possible to create flock, which is then turned into pellets of refuse derived fuel (RDF) for use in biomass combustors. This system doesn’t evoke the same image of woods ripped to their roots, disrupting ecosystems and decimating our green and pleasant land for use in energy generation plants as certain groups would have us envision.

Biomass plants aren’t carbon neutral, but they are certainly a method through which the lights can be kept on using natural resources which are significantly less harmful than either the use of fossil fuels or the huge methane emissions of landfill sites. Equating them with either of the above is tantamount to equating a drop in the river with the river itself. It’s also important to remember who the experts are in all of these, and to consider the narrow interests of some of the loudest voices involved. Some green collectives insist that waste-to-fuel initiatives should be eradicated, instead driving for 100% recycling and no landfill. This in itself is naïve, but given the current political landscape which recently saw 26% of voters turn towards UKIP, it could almost be called ignorant(click here to read our blog on UKIP’s energy policy, and its complete absence of all renewable considerations).

In her letter to Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the RSPB, Hartnell writes: ‘The only groups who stand to gain from our in-fighting are our opponents,’ and this is an important point. The development of a cleaner future is based on iterative progression, and as important as idealism is, it is not helpful to demand so much so immediately that you actually slow rather than accelerate the process. There are very real issues of energy supply to be contended with, and an internecine battle such as this only serves to damage what should be a common cause.

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