Large biomass plants create a substantial threat to British businesses and the environment, writes John Dye, president of the Timber Packaging & Pallet Confederation (TIMCON).
We are lobbying hard on the policy of subsidies for large biomass electricity plants, which we are urging the Government to review as a matter of great urgency.
The UK can accommodate smaller biomass plants for heat. These burn a few hundred tonnes of timber each year and operate at 90 per cent efficiency. However, large, biomass-fuelled electricity plants burn up to four million tonnes of wood every year - at just 30 per cent efficiency. This creates a substantial threat to British businesses and the environment.
The original aim of subsidies was to encourage incremental harvesting of biomass from tree thinnings on marginal land in local forests. This in turn ensures every useful part of a harvested tree is used and helps produce better quality sustainable timber. However, this policy has evolved; so it now artificially supports the burning of small logs rather than using them as we do in the packaging and pallet industry.
In the short term, there are currently not enough supplies available to satisfy demand for established timber-based manufacturing industries such as ours as well as the large biomass plants. Subsidising these large energy operations damage the environment by creating a situation where virgin timber is more likely to be burnt inefficiently as biomass fuel rather than used to make carbon-storing products.
Subsidies are damaging the economy as they artificially increase the price of timber, which diverts essential supplies from manufacturing, and escalates the costs of business-critical, and environmentally friendly, products such as timber pallets and packaging. These are excellent examples of products that can be repeatedly recovered, repaired and recycled so as to maximise the carbon storage potential. Policy must focus on encouraging existing uses for wood, so it is used for several years and the maximum benefit taken of its carbon storing, before it is utilised as fuel at the end of its useful life.
The subsidy system has been set up with very little consideration of the availability of biomass as these plants require up to four million tonnes of wood every year. It is a substantial threat to British manufacturing businesses and the environment.
The wood-based industries encompass the UK’s most sustainable and environmentally friendly companies, and provide a significant level of employment – significantly more than provided by the biomass industry, for example. There are approximately British 30,000 jobs provided by our sector alone. Together, we want to ensure politicians, our customers and the general public understand the great benefits of manufacturing with wood - and huge damage the current regime of subsidising biomass could have.