For years, wood waste from manufacturing was wasted or burned. The leftover logs and branches from harvesting were left on site, creating a fire risk. Today, more and more of that waste is turned into wood chip and pellets in the UK. They are used around the world instead of fossil fuels to produce clean energy which supports the effort of meeting crucial global climate change targets.
These days, biomass is part of the climate change solution as we transition away from fossil fuels for heating purposes. The energy industry is progressively using biomass to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. For example, at Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire, the use of wood pellets lowered the GHG emissions by more than 80% compared to coal (even after accounting for fossil fuel emissions within the supply chain during harvesting, manufacturing and transportation).
Power suppliers are not the only ones supporting the production of energy from biomass. The world’s leading authority on climate change – The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – has recognised the significant GHG mitigation potential of biomass – as much as 80 to 90% – provided that it is developed sustainably and used efficiently.
The need for sustainability is a strong argument for the UK wood chip and pellets. UK forests are highly regulated to ensure they are not depleted over time.
Biomass or fossil fuels?
While both fossil fuels such as coal and biological materials like wood pellets emit carbon dioxide (CO2), it’s ultimately the source of that CO2 which determines the impact it will have on the atmosphere. Coal is a very efficient fuel, in that it provides more energy per kilogram than biomass, but it is not a renewable one. Coal is mined from carbon sinks that took millions of years to form, so when it is burned to produce the energy, it increases the total amount of CO2 and other potent GHGs in the atmosphere.
On the other hand, energy made from woody biomass comes from burning carbon drawn out of the atmosphere by trees within the last 150 years; most of the carbon from those trees is being held in long-lived forest products. Harvested areas are reforested and start drawing in C02 from the atmosphere within a year of harvesting. Those factors make wood fuel biomass a renewable energy source and an important alternative in the transition away from fossil fuels.
For sustainable forestry, it is essential that the carbon stock in forests remains stable or increases over time. Forest professionals manage whole forests by dividing them into hundreds of individual forest stands or sections. As one plot is being harvested, another is being planted, another is being thinned, while in yet another, crews are removing competing brush to allow the trees to grow faster.
While this is happening, the stands are being managed for other important values such as biodiversity, recreation and cultural heritage. Since only a few forest stands are harvested each year, growth in the hundreds of adjacent stands adds up to at least the same, but most often more than the amount harvested. Newly planted stands sequester only small amounts of carbon, but as they increase in age, will store more
and more carbon over time until they reach maturity. At maturity, both growth and carbon sequestration slow, until finally the trees are harvested, and the cycle begins again. This concept is essential in
understanding forest carbon accounting.
When a single forest stand is harvested, about half of the carbon ends up being stored in long-lived forest products.
The increasing demand for sustainable wood pellets generates two wins:
- reducing GHG emissions abroad and
- reducing forest waste domestically
Sustainable wood chips and pellets are an excellent option for energy producers looking co lower their GHG emissions. UK wood pellet producers understand the needs of their customers and demand sustainable biomass from their suppliers even as they help their suppliers reduce waste. Both objectives support the goals of governments seeking
better utilisation of natural resources and more jobs from the natural resource sector. It’s a natural win for everyone.