Government must refine the subsidy mechanism to reflect carbon storage potential of wood – comment by Norbord Europe

A tree’s-worth of wood pellets takes only seconds to burn in a big power plant but it takes at least 20 years for a young tree to reach maturity.

Biomass power plants – power stations that burn organic material instead of fossil fuels – are springing up all over the UK, encouraged by generous government subsidies. Various forms of biomass fuel are employed, ranging from household waste to purpose-grown crops such as miscanthus grass. And the most popular and widespread biomass fuel is wood fibre.

There is a widespread belief that because wood, unlike coal or gas, is a renewable material, it is always better for the environment to burn wood. But this is not true.

Wood contains a lot less energy by weight than coal so you have to burn a lot more to get the same amount of power. This also means that burning wood releases four times the carbon of the equivalent coal – wood is a dirtier fuel. As for sustainability, no amount of replanting can compensate for the carbon released by burning wood fibre as biomass. A tree’s-worth of wood pellets takes only seconds to burn in a big power plant but it takes at least 20 years for a young tree to reach maturity. 

Claimed carbon savings for biomass energy take no account of the alternative uses of the material. Wood products store carbon for generations and are capable of being reused many times before the carbon they contain escapes back into the atmosphere. Wood should only be burnt for energy production when it has no other viable environmental or commercial use and that is not true of most woody biomass fuel in today’s energy market.

So burning wood to produce electricity is not only unsustainable but also does nothing to help meet the UK’s carbon reduction targets. And yet the government pays the power industry billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to encourage this practice. 

Companies like Norbord, which manufactures valuable products out of products like forest thinnings, sawmill products (sawdust and chip) and recycled wood fibre, cannot compete on an equal basis with the subsidised energy companies. If the government is serious about reducing the UK’s carbon footprint and investing in clean renewable energy, it needs to rethink its subsidy mechanism to reflect the actual carbon storage value of wood and stop paying people to burn it.

Norbord is raising the issues surrounding the misuse of wood due to these ill-considered subsidies. In contrast, it sees the way it and other similar companies use wood as both sustainable and a way of keeping carbon locked up for longer. Only waste wood which cannot be reused or recycled should be incinerated.