The impact of burning wood

Rebecca Harrington writes a good article on the Tech Insider website about how Europe’s biggest source of renewable energy is actually terrible for the environment.


Europe’s most popular source of ‘renewable’ energy is worse for the planet than coal

Europe’s biggest source of renewable energy is actually terrible for the environment.

We’re not talking about wind, solar, or hydroelectric power here. The biggest renewable in Europe is wood pellets.

Burning wood — technically labeled a “renewable” resource since more trees can be replanted and they’ll absorb carbon from the air — is the European Union’s largest source of “renewable” energy, and will continue to be through the year 2020, according to the European Parliament.

Yet using wood biomass in power plants is heating the atmosphere faster than using coal does, a deeply reported Climate Central investigation found.

In 2013 alone, Europe burned 40 billion pounds of wood pellets for bioenergy, making up 79% of the world’s consumption, according to the European Biomass Association.

Companies are converting their power plants from coal to wood across Europe to meet renewable energy goals, Climate Central reported, and the biggest driver is government subsidies.

This is because the European Union classifies wood-generated electricity as “carbon neutral,” so companies end up reporting far fewer emissions than their factories are actually generating.

Climate Central looked specifically at Drax Power Station in England, which is the largest power plant switching from coal to wood in Europe. But when Drax’s boilers burn wood, they release 15% to 20% more carbon dioxide than when they burn coal, Climate Central’s analysis found — amounting to millions of tons of CO2 per year for what people are calling a “renewable” power source.

The theory is that planting more trees can capture the carbon that’s released when trees are burnt and cut down for biomass. But the problem is that takes a lot longer than current EU definitions assume for that process to actually come full circle. A report from the Natural Resources Defense Council says it could take up to a century to repay the carbon debt that’s released when trees are burned for electricity.

And that’s if new trees are planted to replace the ones that were cut down.

So while wood biomass is technically renewable, it’s not on a scale that’s fast enough to make up for the pollution burning it causes in the short term.

During that time the extra carbon dioxide is lingering in the air, contributing to climate change and heating up the planet. It’s also not being counted by the European Union — meaning their greenhouse gas output is likely much higher than they say.

“For mitigating climate change,” Duke University researcher Stephen Mitchell told Climate Central, “it makes much more sense to just continue to let [the trees] grow.”

4 thoughts on “The impact of burning wood

  1. Such “conclusions” are presented by researchers and professors, which, we have to look at them (I mean conclusions) with some sort of sympathy and understanding.
    I will present my “conclusion” from a practitioner point of view, which is actually operating a biomass CHP plant:
    – let’s ask the people leaving in a city: what would they prefer: to be heated by a big coal fired plant located in the vicinity of the city, or, to have, 3-4 smaller distributed biomass CHP plants;
    – the question implies, beside the economics, simple things like preference to smell wood (fresh or burned) and have eventually neutral wood ash to be used as fertilizers, or to avoid coal ash, SOx, possible heavy metals and mountains of ash to be disposed of, somewhere near the same city.
    Indeed, the truth is that, we need to plant trees and have forestation as much as possible…all the rest is speculation…and we don’t necessarily have to take Drax as a reference !
    This is a stupid thing done by British: to build/convert in an electricity only producing power plant on biomass, diverting the role of biomass – which is primarily producing heat and then power. (that’s why we have CHP plant, i.e. Combined HEAT &POWER) and not Combined POWER & HEAT. Perhaps, the same professors from University, allowed Drax engineers graduate power engineering schools, instead of making them repeat the courses…

  2. A small clarification: the power & heat sector, if it is truly “sustainable”, will never ever use trees, as “researcher” from Duke Univ. has suggested.
    The power and heat sector, always use the “wood wastes” from up-stream wood processing, so, the issue of “cutting the trees” should be addressed to somebody else.

  3. Hello Rod,
    I hope this finds you well. Thanks for raising the subject of wood burning for electricity production. Properly accounting for biomass energy in general, and wood-source electricity in particular, is an issue I have long pondered but (as with much in a busy life) not followed through. I must say that I find the Climate Central article cited by Rebecca Harrington simplistic at best and sensationalist at worst. Catalin has pointed out some issues and I would suggest that there are many more that have been glossed over. Going back to the sources referenced in the Climate Central article, although I have only read the abstracts, it would appear (a) that they take a more measured approach pointing up the issues of pellet manufacture, transportation, storage etc., and (b) that they are not attempting to take a holistic view of all wood burning – only looking at the contribution that direct felling for power production makes. I’m sure that someone, somewhere, has published a more holistic approach to the question; unfortunately the Climate Central article is not it.

    • Hello Richard,
      Good to hear from you. Thank you for this comment. This is a big issue and I’m glad that you and Catalin have provided these. I would assume that there has been a more holistic published work. Let’s see if anyone responds.

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