Keep Carbon Locked In

Government subsidies for biomass energy production are not only distorting the UK market for wood but also releasing unnecessary CO2 into the atmosphere.

Norbord continues to campaign for the best use of wood supplies via the Use Wood Wisely campaign – In the wood panels industry, among others, wood is made into into panels that lock up carbon for many decades. 

However, as part of the government’s commitment to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, they are continuing to support the mass-industrialised burning of wood for energy, thus releasing tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere instead. 

Today, it is estimated that almost 3 million tonnes of British-sourced wood is being burnt by power generators every year. 

Use Wood Wisely campaign aims to highlight this predicament and to promote the responsible and sustainable use of wood. Norbord argues that it is much more efficient to process virgin timber into added-value products that have an important role to play in the world. Only when the wood products come to the end of their use, and can no longer be recycled or upcycled into other products, should their timber element be considered fit for burning for energy. 

This is known as the ‘cascade of use’ and is a best-practice model supported by a number of NGOs, who are otherwise unlikely bedfellows in campaigning efforts regards the biomass issue.

As well as increased CO2 emissions, burning wood that isn’t at the end of its lifecycle is directly impacting the wood panel industry in terms of supply and cost. A recent report* highlighted the long-term imbalance between supply and demand in the UK. While it provides evidence that wood supply and demand will be roughly balanced for the next 15 years, there are concerns about demand exceeding supply beyond 2035. A concerning figure when one considers that trees take decades to fully mature.

The extra demand is predominantly coming from the growth in sub-50MW biomass power stations in the UK and, in addition to putting extra pressure on the supply of wood, these plants also benefit from government subsidies which advantage them when it comes to competition for wood resource.

Since E.ON commissioned a 50MW woodfired power station at Lockerbie, Scotland, in 2006, there has been a steady increase in wood-based power generation. This has created more competition for wood supplies in the UK but put companies like Norbord at a disadvantage as the government subsidies allow energy companies to distort the market, resulting in increased prices.

For example, the Drax station in North Yorkshire will burn 7.5 million tones of wood pellets per annum – that’s equivalent to chopping down 12,000km2 of forest. Drax is sourcing the bulk of its wood pellets from North America and therefore contributing further to CO2 emissions in this long-distance transportation process.

Norbord and the Wood Panel Industries Federation (WPIF), which represents other wood-consuming companies, are lobbying the government over this issue, but the WPIF is not against the development of biomass energy generation or competition – the industry just wants to compete for its raw material on a level playing field with the generators.

In fact, Norbord has installed biomass boilers at its mills as an environmentally-efficient way of using up wood residues from its panel manufacturing process as fuel, wood that otherwise would go to landfill.

Nevertheless, apart from the unfair competition situation, the Use Wood Wisely campaign has a strong ethical argument to get the best use out of a valuable resource before it is consigned to the flames.


* Wood Fibre Availability & Demand in Britain 2013-35.