Image: Drax Power Station
September 21st 2016
Plans to convert Ireland’s three peat-fired power stations to biomass will be forced to rely heavily on imports.
The Sunday Times reported last weekend that imports of biomass such as wood pellets until at least 2020 but it is conceivable that significant imports will continue long after that especially if the three power stations are to be converted.
According to the Sunday Times, officials at the Department of Energy have questioned the wisdom of large-scale biomass imports.
Environmental groups have also warned against importing wood pellets as a way of reaching our climate targets. This issue came to a head in the UK last year when it was revealed that Britain was now consuming one third of all the wood-pellets in the world in an effort to meet its climate change commitments.
The problem that was exposed by investigating where the UK was sourcing its pellets came down to an issue of ‘good biomass’ versus ‘bad biomass’.
Reports have suggested that the surge in imports has led to forests in the United States being cut down to meet the supply. The climate impact of cutting down forests for biomass like this is worse than coal. This ‘bad biomass’ was never the intention of the biomass subsidies but the increase in demand and the cross boarder nature of the trade led to this happening.
Carbon Brief, a UK based website following climate science, conducted an investigation into the UK’s biomass trading and found that it was difficult to establish whether Drax (coal and biomass station) was using good or bad biomass.
Here they explain the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ biomass:
Good biomass includes fine woody residues taken from forests instead of burning it at the roadside, or leaving it to rot. Burning sawdust and sawmill residues is good for the climate, too, unless rising pellet demand indirectly drives deforestation in countries like Brazil.
Bad biomass includes extracting larger pieces of woody residue rather than leaving them to decompose slowly on the forest floor, which might be no better for the climate than gas.
The worst biomass of all would be if the surge in UK demand for wood pellets sees US forests harvested more frequently than they would have been otherwise. Evidence from the US government suggests this is already happening, and the climate impacts could be worse than coal.
Any move by Ireland to enter this international market in biomass will need to ensure that we do not inadvertently contribute to climate change.