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Burning with desire

Wood is an ideal material to burn to generate power and is from a sustainable source. It has been used as a fuel and source of heat by humankind for millennia. But is there a missed opportunity to use more recycled wood in today’s modern biomass plants?

The sheer number of biomass plants on the drawing board suggests that it is an opportunity to be grabbed with both hands, but is there more to this picture? “There are a tremendous amount of biomass projects in planning and a lot never make it to the start line,” says Peter Butt, executive director of the Wood Recyclers’ Association. He adds: “There’s a certain amount of biomass in the country and there’s enough wood to satisfy that.”

Butt says the 500,000 tonnes that is not used by the UK industry and is being exported, is mainly exported from the south of England - mostly due to the fact that some of the biomass plants in Europe are closer than some of the ones in the UK.

The WRA and its members have worked hard to improve wood recycling over the years. As its website states, of the 4.5 million tonnes of wood waste a year produced in 1996 just 4% of this was recycled. But by 2011 this had jumped to 60% - or 2.8 million tonnes. Butt and his members are concerned that Government incentives given to biomass companies might start to undermine wood recycling as they are less able to compete financially for the material.

“In an ideal world, wood used for biomass would not be fit for any other use - that’s in an ideal world. But the situation is that the line gets a bit blurred at times between panel board and biomass. At the end of the day wood will go where the money is and the Government has been, and is still going to, extend subsidy to biomass to the point where biomass companies can pay more for their fuel than panel board [can pay],” Butt explains.

Alastair Kerr, director general of the Wood Panel Industries Association agrees: “The wood waste that can be recycled is [currently] being recycled. Most of the wood waste going to landfill can’t easily be recycled and it makes sense if you are looking at it critically to burn it.” But he adds, “incentivising the burning of biomass and waste wood does actually act as a disincentive to recycling”.

Both Kerr and Butt argue that if biomass firms have a Government subsidy, whether it be Renewables Obligation Certificates (ROCs) or something else, then they can afford to pay more for their feedstock. If there is a scarcity of material - due to high demand from new biomass plants coming on line - then recyclers might be forced out. “It’s not the burning of wood per se, it’s the subsidy, it creates an un-level playing field,” Kerr argues.

Kerr points to the fact that the amount of wood packaging waste being recycled has dropped by 50%. Some of this is due to the wood going to newer markets such as animal bedding and composting but some is going to energy plants. Packaging is an attractive material stream for panel board companies as it is relatively clean. Wood is often varnished or contains laminates, which make it very difficult to recycle, and wood panel board recyclers have to maintain a quality grade of material in order to meet environmental permits. 

For Kerr, there is a question around the decision to focus on energy plants using wood waste as a fuel. “Waste to energy is a good thing but behind wood waste there is a huge amount of other waste going to landfill. The issue to burning more municipal waste is nimbyism and concern about pollution. It’s also being driven by costs. If you’re going to put in municipal waste incinerators you need a lot of back end treatment and this is expensive. These are some of the big issues that the waste industry needs to overcome.

“Certainly waste to energy has a big part to play, and an important part, but Government subsidies have resulted in these unintended consequences where you could get biomass firms cherry picking for the best grade wood. You will end up displacing the recycling and I don’t see that as a good thing.”

Neil Bailey, co-director at Energy Contract Solutions, is less alarmist, but he does believe the UK will end up exporting less. “New assets are coming on stream that are going to absorb a lot of this excess wood waste. A lot of this [excess] is exported to places like Sweden where they have district heating schemes during the winter. We are approaching the point where we could see no surplus in the future.”

He adds that in places like Germany, in the depths of winter biomass plants do run out of material. But stories about importing wood waste into the UK for biomass plants, he argues, are unfounded. He says that electricity firm Drax Group does import virgin wood pellets - as opposed to recovered wood - to be used in one of its generating units which it converted from coal to wood pellets last year. This may be where the confusion lies.

Bailey believes the UK could reach a situation when competition over higher grade wood waste material is an issue. “Board mills don’t have a subsidy and are looking for a cleaner grade,” he says. “We are potentially looking at a point where there could be a definite issue if all the biomass plants that they say are going to be built, get built.”

He adds that we might end up with the newer facilities putting pressure on existing plants – forcing them to close: “With some of the older power stations that have less of a subsidy there will come a point where they can’t pay enough for the material and may become usurped by the newer facilities. So we might see some demand destruction.”

For Bailey, 2018 will be the pinch point when all these issues start to become clear as the ROC subsidy drops from March 2017. But he feels that wood biomass plants are, and will continue to be, a reality and that the industry needs to “step up” to the tasks of supplying this sector. And he flags up the health and safety issues that need to be addressed, such as the fire risk associated with storage of the material and potential damage to human health from wood dust. 

The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is in support of using waste wood for energy - as long as it follows the waste hierarchy: “Where appropriate we should minimise the use of resources, reuse them, recycle them and finally use them for energy generation before sending them to landfill.” It argues that its research shows that the high price of high quality wood makes it unattractive to be used as a fuel rather than recycled. However, it is monitoring the situation and is analysing the results of a survey of large scale power generators it undertook last year, to better understand their use of wood waste and their expected use over the next five years.

DECC also points to WRAP research that showed that wood waste arisings had fallen substantially over the past three years due to reduced activity across construction, furniture and joinery. This in turn resulted in a decline in demand for recovered wood in the panel board sector, although overall total demand increased due to growth in the use of recycled wood as animal bedding.

Time will tell how the wood market develops.

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