Response to Increase in Wood Chip Usage by British Utility DRAX

Editor’s note—Dr. George Woodwell is responding to the recent increase of a British utility, DRAX, use of wood chips, mostly from trees in the southeastern US, to replace coal. DRAX says they are renewable, and cleaner than coal. To call wood chips clean or renewable, is demonstrably false. April 19, 2016 Harvard Ayers

Dear Editor, The Climate Times:

I had not realized how bad it was.  This is BIG bad. British subsidies destroy both forests in the US and the global atmosphere. I do not believe there is any possibility of managing forests specifically to feed this market, even with subsidies in Britain.  The volume of wood required for this purpose is large enough that large trees in substantial areas must be used.  I assume that must mean clear-cutting of large trees over significant areas. Profits may hinge on the sale of the cleared land into house lots or some such, but not on forests that require 75-100 years to reach salable size.  In my experience, there is no circumstance in which biomass can be used sustainably as a fuel for large, electricity-generating plants.  Subsidies cannot change that circumstance in a world in which big progress is being made in renewable energy and in efficiency in use of energy.  Several economic and political arrangements are out of kilter, not to speak of a thoroughly mixed up understanding of the biophysical world.  And cutting trees in the US Southeast to make wood pellets to feed boilers in British power plants is surely the height of folly.  Not sure what the cure is. It may be a tax if common sense does not suddenly emerge. I am sure there are subtle aspects of this charade that escape me, but it all looks pretty bad from here.  G.

Dr. Woodwell is a forest ecologist and climate scientist who founded the Woods Hole Research Center in Woods Hole, MA. See his essay in this premier issue of The Climate Times.