Tommy Sheppard: Burning wood on an industrial scale is daft

Posted On: 
1st December 2017

Burning biomass for electricity is high-carbon and expensive – we need a more cost-effective solution to the UK energy crisis, says Tommy Sheppard 

Burning wood for domestic heating is efficient. But doing it on an industrial scale is daft, writes Tommy Sheppard
Credit: 
PA Images

When I first heard the term biomass I thought it was some futuristic new energy technology – cutting-edge science coming to rescue us from carbon catastrophe.

I was more than a little disappointed to realise that it’s just a fancy way of describing burning wood. Far from being new, it’s just another way of referring to the oldest way of generating heat known to man.

I’m not against burning wood. I have a superb Swedish-made wood-burner in the kitchen which not only heats the whole house, but generates a wonderful smell and is calming and captivating to look at. As energy aesthetics go, there’s nothing better.

Burning wood for domestic heating is efficient, pleasant and, in the right location, can be sustainable. It is, however, polluting. After a wholesale energy retrofit of our woeful housing stock it could be a useful, if small, part of our future energy mix.

But what is daft is burning wood on an industrial scale to replace fossil fuels, and basing the Clean Growth Strategy on more of the same.

Who’s kidding who? Just because the carbon in wood pellets isn’t fossilised doesn’t mean the carbon dioxide you get when it burns isn’t really carbon dioxide.

The argument that this is carbon neutral because the trees absorbed an equal amount of carbon dioxide while they were growing has got to be one of the stupidest I’ve ever heard. You might as well say that some fossil fuels are carbon neutral because they’re made out of plants which absorbed carbon dioxide a million years ago.

To be carbon neutral, an equal amount of CO2 needs to be taken out of atmosphere as is released into it over the same period of time. Even fast-growing trees take many years to photosynthesise carbon dioxide into wood. If you can’t see that incinerating the same tree in a matter of seconds adds to CO2 levels in today’s atmosphere, then you’re not thinking about this hard enough.

What’s even more amazing is not that private firms parade biomass as a carbon-cutting technology, but that they’ve conned the government into giving them hundreds of millions of bill-payers’ money as subsidies.

This is money that could be spent on real carbon-reducing energy technology – stuff that’s a bit more clever and sophisticated than burning wood. 

 

Tommy Sheppard is SNP MP for Edinburgh East