The Australian logging industry is seeking to cash in on a global surge in markets for forest biomass and wood-fired power.
Proposals for new wood-burning power stations are popping up around the globe. The US alone has 102 new wood-fired power stations planned, the October 25, 2009 Independent said.
The June 30 Bloomberg Businessweek said demand for plant-based biofuels, biomass and pellets, made by compressing sawdust and chips from pulp and paper production, will multiply in the next decade, in large part due to the European Union’s renewable energy regulations. Production of wood pellets could rise from 12 million to 100 million tons.
Burning wood, instead of coal, is a cheap way of generating electricity while skirting liabilities for greenhouse gas pollution.
Governments in Australia and around the globe have swallowed the shaky proposition pushed by industry players that burning wood, instead of coal, is “carbon neutral”.
Wood, which contains about 40% carbon, can be regrown, unlike coal. In theory, carbon emissions from burning wood can be cancelled out as new forests grow.
In reality, when timber sourced from the logging of native forests is burned to generate electricity, the result is a huge net loss of carbon to the atmosphere.
In Australia, logging interests see large-scale wood-fired power stations and fuel wood exports as the solution to declining markets for native forest woodchips. This biomass escape route, and the government subsidies and policy settings that would underwrite it, rely on the claim that burning timber for electricity generation is “carbon neutral.”
The federal government’s Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) legislation includes native forest timber, under the convenient euphemism of “wood waste”, as a renewable energy source, able to generate lucrative Renewable Ene-rgy Certificates (RECs). These RECs would underpin the viability of large wood-burning power stations.
The Labor government’s draft Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme also identified native forest biomass as a “carbon neutral” fuel source, and waved any obligation to report on emissions.
However, in the United States, which has one of the world’s most advanced wood-fired power industries, many scientists dispute the claim that wood-fired power is carbon neutral.
On May 19, 90 US scientists wrote to Congress and President Barack Obama expressing alarm that a climate and energy bill before Congress supported a raft of new wood-burning power and bioenergy plants without emissions being properly accounted for.
“Clearing or cutting forests for energy, either to burn trees directly in power plants or to replace forests with bioenergy crops, has the net effect of releasing otherwise sequestered carbon into the atmosphere, just like the extraction and burning of fossil fuels,” the scientists wrote.
Power generated by burning wood face increasing opposition in the US. Plans for several biomass plants around the country have been dropped. For example, a $250 million biomass power project planned for Gretna, Florida, was abandoned after residents complained that it threatened air quality, WCTV said on March 17.
There has been public opposition in Texas, where local African American communities fought biomass energy companies over air quality issues, the April 22 Texas Observer reported.
Perhaps the most high-profile opposition has emerged in Massachusetts. This opposition has been fuelled by scientific scrutiny and has spilled over into the political arena.
The biomass industry lobby has responded with a PR campaign to win public and political support. On August 20, the Biomass Power Association, a US industry group, launched a $250,000 public relations, advocacy, and advertising campaign to show “the vital role that biomass power can play in reducing greenhouse gases and creating new jobs across America, especially in rural communities.”
It said the campaign would also “highlight the economic and environmental benefits of biomass power, as well as the importance of extending tax incentives essential to maintaining existing biomass power facilities and creating jobs”.
Despite this industry counter-offensive, public opposition in Massachusetts caused the state government to call a moratorium on new wood-fired power permits in December 2009 and to commission a comprehensive study by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences on the climate impacts of wood-fired power stations.
The Manomet study, released in June, found that, within accepted emissions reporting timeframes, burning wood for electricity would actually be as bad and, in some cases, worse then burning fossil fuels.
This is because the efficiency and per-unit energy content of wood is far lower than most fossil fuels. So, far from being the climate change solution touted by its proponents, burning wood to generate energy is dirty business.
More than the climate would suffer if burning wood became a widespread energy option. Public health advocates and leading medical societies in the US have expressed alarm at the serious health risks arising from forest-burning power stations and the particulate and other emissions they produce.
In December 2009, the Massachusetts Medical Society, publisher of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, announced a policy opposing wood-fired power station proposals on the grounds that “biomass power plants pose an unacceptable risk to the public’s health by increasing air pollution”.
The American Lung Association, in a June 24, 2009, letter to the US House of Representatives said biomass burning had the potential to “generate significant increases in emissions of nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and sulphur dioxide and have severe impacts on the health of children, older adults, and people with lung diseases”.
The US experience has highlighted the glaring risks posed to our climate and public health, not to mention our forests and biodiversity, by plans to install wood fired power. Yet Australian policy makers have accepted the industry mantra that biomass is a social and environmental panacea.
In June, the Labor government rejected a Greens Senate motion that would have removed “wood waste” from the list of renewable energy sources under the MRET legislation.
However, it joined with the Greens in opposing amendments to the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2010, moved by Tasmanian Liberal Party senators, to increase Australia’s use of biomass energy.
On August 5, the National Association of Forest Industries released its latest forestry growth plan which called for the removal of regulations in the Renewable Energy Act that impose a “value test” on logging operations that source wood for forest power stations.
A coalition of environment groups around the country are pressuring all parties to rule out the threats posed by forest furnace power plants and to remove “wood waste” from the list of eligible fuel sources under the Renewable Energy Act.
The post-election Labor minority government’s dependence on support from the Greens and independent MPs, creates opportunities for such pressure to be successful.