July 25, 2021

Wood, a not-so-green source of energy in an industrializing biomass market

In the forests of the southern United States grow oaks, hickory, pines. There are also pellet factories. At least twenty-three in a decade. There, wood from the forests of multiple owners is crushed, dried and then compressed to form small cylindrical sticks, a few centimeters in length. These pellets, also called granules, are then transported to the ports of Louisiana, where they are loaded on cargo ships, one of which is part takes the road to the United Kingdom.

On the other side of the Atlantic, they pass through to the gigantic Drax power station, in the north-east of England. Here, some 7.5 million tonnes of this fuel are burned each year to provide 5% of the electricity consumed by the British.

When it ran on coal, the Drax plant was once the first CO emitter2 from the country. Now that she runs on wood pellets, she would be the “Europe’s first decarbonisation project”. “Even taking into account all emissions linked to the supply chain, the energy produced emits 80% less emissions than coal”, says the Drax group, owner of the site.

For bioenergy supporters, relying on forest biomass to produce heat or electricity is essential for a successful energy transition – biomass refers to any type of organic material, including wood, used to produce energy. But, for the scientific community and environmental organizations, it is on the contrary an aberration. A “false good idea”, which contributes to accelerate climate change. While the European Union (EU) must decide this year on several crucial texts concerning the energy and forestry sectors, the subject has become highly flammable.

At the end of February, 500 scientists sent a new worried letter to the American President, Joe Biden, and to the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, alerting them to the risks linked to the increase in the use of wood energy. Three months later, when the International Energy Agency (IEA), a key player in the sector, published its roadmap for 2050, it was the chapter providing for an increase in the use of bioenergy. which immediately aroused strong opposition.

The latest episode in a conflict that for years has opposed the international organization to the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), worried about the development of wood energy. “More than 6 billion euros in subsidies are paid out each year to encourage a practice where the net result is that emissions increase, without knowing how much they could start to decrease, denounces Michael Norton, the director of the environmental program of EASAC. Seems like a terrible way to spend our money! ”

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