10 reasons why burning wood waste for electricity should not be included in the RET | RenewEconomy

10 reasons why burning wood waste for electricity should not be included in the RET

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A threat to native forests and human health; just two of the reasons burning wood waste should not be included in RET.

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There has been some debate about whether the Abbott government’s last minute addition of burning wood waste to its conditions for a RET deal is another Coalition Red Herring, or an issue of serious concern to Australia’s solar and wind energy sectors. According to the Australian Conservation Foundation, there are 10 good reasons why burning native forests for electricity should not be included in the RET. Here they are…

Burning-pellets

1.      Including native forest burning in the RET will restrict the uptake of real renewables

Renewable energy targets can be more than met by wind, solar and other genuinely renewable energy sources.  If burning the lungs of our land is allowed to be classified as renewable, it would take credits and assistance from the real renewable energy industry, especially from new, large-scale solar thermal and solar PV plants.

2.      Logging and burning native forests releases a lot of CO2 pollution

The purpose of the Renewable Energy Target is to encourage the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and create jobs in clean energy.  Burning native forest biomass for electricity generation is contrary to this purpose as it depletes forest carbon stocks.  Most estimates consider it to have a similar carbon intensity to burning coal.  Protecting Australia’s native forests would reduce emissions by tens of millions of tonnes of carbon per year.

3.      Native forests are more valuable left intact, sequestering huge stores of carbon

Australia’s native forests contain around 13,067 million tonnes of carbon, close to 24 times our annual national emissions profile (535.9 Mt).  Leaving these forests standing contributes much more to the effort to tackle climate change than chopping them down and burning them.  The carbon they hold, if burned, will simply add to greenhouse emissions and undermine other renewable energy sources.  The Climate Commission’s 2011 report ‘The Critical Decade’ recognises the protection of native forests as a key climate change mitigation strategy.

4.      Including biomass in the RET would drive deforestationKaola saved from deforestation

Eastern Australia was recently highlighted as a global deforestation hotspot.  Using native forest wood as fuel for biomass power is extremely inefficient.  A lot of wood is needed to make a small amount of electricity.  Biomass power plants need an ongoing source of wood for fuel.  This would increase pressure on Australia’s remaining native forests and become a major new driver for deforestation.

5.      If biomass electricity is allowed in the RET, whole trees will be used to fuel the furnaces

The definition of ‘waste’ already used by the woodchip industry is any tree not suitable for saw-logging.  Under the conditions proposed by the Federal Government, up to 49 per cent of all logs taken out of forests could be burnt.

6.      Burning forests for energy will mean increased subsidies for an industry that is already heavily subsidised by taxpayers

The logging industry in every state is unsustainably propped up by millions of taxpayer dollars every year.  There is no indication a native forest biomass industry would be able to stand on its own without government subsidies.

7.      It would be dangerous to human health

Burning native forest wood releases toxins harmful to the health of nearby communities. Wood dust is a known carcinogen and exposure is associated with skin disease, increased asthma, chronic bronchitis and nasal problems.  The available data, now established and documented, may leave federal and state governments open to legal challenges by individuals affected by sustained wood burning.

8.      The conservation values of Australia’s native forests are already under threat

Australian forests have been over-exploited for decades to meet unrealistic supply contracts.  We face a wildlife extinction crisis in many regions of Australia.  Loss of habitat from logging is a major cause.  Throughout the country logging degrades vast tracts for native forest, reducing water quality and quantity in catchments and lessening rain-making capacity.  The Australian Forest Products Association wants Australia to burn forest biomass, like Europe does, but most European forests are plantations, not natural forests.  There are different climates, water supplies and industry economics.

9.      It would have poor employment outcomes

The native forest biomass power industry would be a very small employer.  Australia has the capacity to power the whole energy sector with renewables like solar and wind.  The Renewable Energy Target has already generated more than 24,000 jobs in clean renewable energy industries and is forecast to generate tens of thousands more.

10.  Australians don’t want it

May 2015 Reachtell poll in the federal seats of Eden Monaro and Corangamite found most voters would be less likely to buy electricity from a company that produced it from burning forests.
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42 Comments
  1. lin 5 years ago

    I am uncomfortable with the idea of excluding all wood waste from the renewable energy target schemes. I am OK with not including native forests if this will result in additional destruction of native forests, but wood is a renewable resource and there are many plantations that produce a lot of waste that could be used to sustainably generate power. If they are just going to push it into a heap and put a match into it or do a “fuel reduction burn” to clean the place up after harvest, it seems like a smarter idea to get some of the energy out of it in the process if the economics add up. Perhaps it could even be used to generate biochar to sequester carbon and improve soils while they are at it. I guess I am arguing for a slightly more nuanced approach than “burning wood bad”.

    • Pedro 5 years ago

      Can see your point there for a nuanced approach. My concern is one of trust. Can we really trust the logging industry to use only forest waste as a bio fuel? Who is going verify and regulate?

      Also burning forest waste wood for energy at best is carbon neutral but I severely doubt it. It seems really dumb when we have far better, cleaner, cheaper, zero water use RE technologies already with zero fuel input costs.

      • david H 5 years ago

        Pedro, Plantation forests currently burn there forest waste, which is about half of the wood produced and it is burnt as close to where it arises as is practical. So if it can economically be used for renewable energy, why not? In practice this has not been economical since the inception of the RET.

        • Pedro 5 years ago

          Thanks David.

          If it is going to be burnt anyway why not use it as an energy source, but should not be apart of the RET. For argument sake lets imagine that we have a forest we want to burn for electrical energy. So we bulldoze a parcel of land, chip the lot and throw it into the furnace. Some clever person argues quite well that since the trees will grow again in that particular spot we can call that “renewable energy” and should get the REC’s. So what we have done is convert a functioning carbon sink into a clear felled paddock that will take 30-50 years to regenerate, perhaps never to the same quality it had previously. So you have claimed the RECS but in actual fact you have added CO2 to the atmosphere and will have to wait 30-50 years to take it back out of the atmosphere if we are lucky. Maybe the trees never grow back as there is a land use change, that state forest becomes a housing development or a dairy farm.

          Maybe my argument is one of semantics but I just do not agree that biomass is truly a renewable resource. Biomass fuels to be classified as a renewable energy source is tenuous and in my opinion uses a very broad definition of ‘renewable’. For example you could claim that burning coal is renewable if you were to burn it at the rate at which it is created.

          • david H 5 years ago

            Pedro, If you read the governments position statement you will have a better understanding of what is being proposed, which is not new and I am certainly not proposing the wholesale decimation of native forest. If you want to see the little published decimation of native vegetation just look at what open cut mining does!
            Biomass is truly renewable and sustainable and one of the big opportunities that we have going forward for replacing some of the uses of fossil fuels.
            I see coal as nature’s way of carbon capture and storage on a grand scale that we mortals can never achieve, so we should leave it where it is.

          • Alastair Leith 5 years ago

            In the case of old growth rainforest, even after 100 years regrowth the carbon sequestration will not have recovered to pre-logged level of carbon sequestration (or rainfall output probably). And the biodiversity loss could be the ultimate sacrifice for many treated species. As shown in Amazon trials regrowth after burning results in inferior forests with different species. The ‘evolution’ of a rainforest if I can use the word evolution in this non-standard way takes centuries to establish the ecosystems and carbon absorbing power of a old growth rainforest.

      • lin 5 years ago

        Pine plantations leave a lot of waste when the logs are harvested. I am sure this is true for eucalypt plantations too. Anything we can do to make plantation timber more profitable will reduce pressure on native forests in the long term. If this means allowing plantation waste burning to classify as renewable under the RET, it should be allowed. It may even encourage some farmers to replant trees.

        • Alastair Leith 5 years ago

          The pressure on native forests is because our governments give them away! In fact they subsidies their removal and burning. Plantation owners (when not on public land) have to pay leases for the land and sink capital into the project. Woodchippers do not.

          • lin 5 years ago

            You are correct. A handful of very wealth people make a killing destroying our native forests at taxpayer’s expense. This is a complete scam, but it appears that those who benefit from it are untouchable – media will not report on it, politicians will not act on it. The sooner this is fixed, the sooner plantations will make decent profits for their owners, and our water catchments and carbon sinks will be left for the possums and birds and for people to wonder at the beauty and majesty of the tallest flowering plants in the world.

    • david H 5 years ago

      Lin, I totally agree with you and it is good to see that common sense prevails!

      Josh’s editorial is very misleading and frequently does not differentiate between native forest wood waste, wood waste (i.e. not native) and “burning of forests.” If Josh hasn’t already done so, he may wish to read the government’s statement here: https://retreview.dpmc.gov.au/72-native-forest-wood-waste

  2. Paul Turnbull 5 years ago

    Reason number 1 is that biomass is more valuable for liquid fuels – bulk quantities of biomass whether from purpose grown plantations, crop residues or native forests are better turned into liquid fuel. Using Mallees to create jet fuel is one such idea that makes sense and has been given some consideration by Virgin Australia, GE and Future Farm Industry CRC – the value of fuel is higher than electrons (electricity) for biomass from trees, grasses and a range of other plants. Your other reasons don’t deal with renewable energy and are not the way to improve land use.

    • david H 5 years ago

      Paul, I agree with you but so far the market in Australia does not. Wind and PV behind the meter are still the lowest hanging renewable energy in Australia.

  3. Ken Dyer 5 years ago

    There is only one reason – it is bloody stupid and unintelligent

  4. Roger M 5 years ago

    Native forests – 2 reports for Forestry Tas or Tas Govt by MBAC or CO2 Australia indicate Tasmania’s native forest logging net emissions (or reduction in sequestration) of 6m+ t CO2/yr (about half private, half public forests), close to the total Tas emissions from all other sources. For each tonne of (live?) biomass cut about 40% is sold (4.5% sawlog, 35.5% pulpwood) so remaining 60% largely burnt presumably. However there is also almost as much above ground dead biomass (debris and stags) as live biomass. So allowing carbon credits for any of this sounds very much like double counting/dipping.
    Plantations are a different matter but am not sure if there are financially viable options – eg small scale distributed generation as seen in Europe.

  5. Farmer Dave 5 years ago

    Josh, I am interested in your comment in Reason #2 that: “Most estimates consider it to have a similar carbon intensity to burning coal.” This assertion is contrary to my expectations. Above ground biomass represents carbon taken from the atmosphere in the last few hundred years, while coal is ancient carbon that before being mined was safely stored underground. If the forestry is being done properly, re-growth will re-sequester carbon at the same rate (or faster) as it is being removed. Therefore, I am interested in much more detailed justification for this assertion, please. Can you provide references to peer-reviewed studies? Under what assumptions did the studies show “similar” carbon intensity? How did those assumptions differ from those studies which showed a smaller carbon intensity?

    Finally, your assertion was made in the context of burning wood from native forests to generate electricity, but it has such a wide sweep that readers might be tempted to assume that it applies to all burning of wood, regardless of the source of the wood and of the use made of the heat. This is where the assumptions made to arrive at the “similar carbon intensity” result are so important.

    I recently commented on another thread that I am involved in a group which aims to turn sawdust from existing sawmills into wood pellets like those in the illustration to your article. The intention would be to supply local users of heat with locally supplied pellets from locally available sawdust. The primary market would be to replace existing use of fossil gas for heating, although some replacement of the resistive use of electricity is also possible. I can’t see how the carbon intensity of what we are proposing could possibly come even close to the continued use of fossil gas to provide the needed heat. Sweeping assertions such as yours trouble me as they question the benefits of what I propose.

    • Alastair Leith 5 years ago

      “If the forestry is being done properly, re-growth will re-sequester carbon at the same rate (or faster) as it is being removed”

      This is a baseless claim. The rainforests in Gippsland sequester more carbon than any other land use in Australia. It takes regrowth forest centuries to get back to that level of sequestration per year once they are destroyed. New forests also use a lot more water which effects catchments, and they produce less rain. It’s hardly as virtuous as your back-of-the-envelope idea has discovered.

      Suggest you give the BZE Land Use Report a look. It examines many sources of land use GHG emissions and potentials for offsetting. At present land use accounts for 55% of national emissions if we use GWP20 and more careful accounting than the national GHG audit.
      https://bze.org.au/landuse

      • Farmer Dave 5 years ago

        Alastair, it is not a baseless claim – it is my definition of “done properly”. Consider a scenario in which a 100 ha forest is known to sequester 1,000 tonnes of carbon per year. If only 1 ha of the 100 is harvested each year, and if the harvesting only takes 500 tonnes of carbon from that 1 ha, allowing the rest of the 1 ha and the remaining 99 ha to continue to grow, then the rate of removal from the forest is less than the rate of sequestration, and the following year a different 1 ha block could be harvested in the same gentle way. Such an approach may be very uncommon, and may be uneconomic, but is it impossible? In plantation forestry, some limited harvesting is essential to get maximum growth (and hence sequestration), and it is usually called “thinning”.

        Thanks for the suggestion – I will have a look at the BZE land use report. I really liked their stationary energy report.

        • Alastair Leith 5 years ago

          Yeah, it’s just not that simple as your mathematics that’s all. In theory is not in practice and all that. I’ve asked the Director of the Land Use Report for links about the research of sequestration of old growth forests. Will post if I get something. I recall something posted on The Conversation but search failed to yield it.

    • Alastair Leith 5 years ago

      What you are talking about is presumably genuine waste (saw dust from saw logs). Good: use it as best you can with minimal emission possible. What the industry wants and currently takes is mature trees and calls them waste because they like to flatten an entire coup to grab a few saw logs. As others have pointed out, saw logs are a minor part of what is harvested in native forests and essentially is a fig leaf for the woodchipping and burning of our native forests. Let’s not double down on stupid policy by expanding an ecologically destructive practice.

  6. john 5 years ago

    Hint it is a wild goose chase

  7. David Rossiter 5 years ago

    The use of native forest wood waste is already permitted under RET. The definition of waste for that purpose is very specific. So far as I am aware only one REC has been created under that category and that was done by Forestry Tasmania to show that native forest wood waste was eligible under the RE Act, in a bid to encourage investors to build wood waste plants in Tasmania. None seemed to eventuate as costs exceeded benefits even with the bonus of RECs.
    The one REC produced is for 1 MWh of electricity and that is about 15% of one household’s annual electricity. What is more I understand that the plant that produced it at Tahune Airwalk took nine months to produce that one REC!

    • Alastair Leith 5 years ago

      Hi David. I’d like to know more about this. Care to email me? I connected with you on LinkedIn just now, please accept invite and I’ll be in touch.

  8. Jill 5 years ago

    Regards the earlier Q on how can burning forests be worse than coal? It is far more polluting than coal for the power produced. Plus the ‘waste’ that is taken is generally between 80-90% of all logs removed from a clearfelled coupe. This has been the historic figure Aust wide since woodchipping began in earnest almost 50 years ago. The other half of the forest biomass not taken due to it being the heads and smaller mid and understorey biomass cannot be efficiently gathered and transported. It’s logs they want for easy processing. Overall sawn timber equals about 2% of a forest’s total mass. Yep – this industry is driven by the demand for ‘waste’.

    In terms of emission control that is needed now, critically and urgently, native forest trees reach maturity and maximum carbon storage potential AFTER 150-180 years of growth. Logging rotations of 25-50 years will not permit carpture and storage of the lost carbon ever again. This will result in an ever increasing carbon debt. According to Dr Judith Ajani, Economist, Fenner School at Australian National University, “Logging native forests for energy is climate negative for virtually the entire logging cycle. Furthermore, the emissions from enacting this scenario today would max out over the next ten to 20 years: a critical time in our climate challenge.”

    Also – try these…

    Re-evaluation of forest biomass carbon stocks and lessons from the
    world’s most carbon-dense forests. Heather Keith, Brendan G. Mackey and
    David B. Lindenmayer, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of
    the United States of America, vol. 106 no. 28, March 2009
    http://www.pnas.org/content/106/28/11635.full

    http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/resources-on-biomass/

    “Dirtier than coal?” published
    by RSPB, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

    http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/biomass_report_tcm9-326672.pdf

    http://globalforestcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/REPORT-WOOD-BASED-BIOENERGY-FINAL.pdf

    • Farmer Dave 5 years ago

      Jill, thank you for those references. The UK Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and RSPB report you linked to contains the following recommendation #3: “A refocus of support for bioenergy on the use of wastes and other feedstocks that are harvested
      sustainably, and where indirect substitution emissions can be shown to be minimal. This would guarantee
      emission reductions.” So, rather than the “all bioenergy is bad, all burning wood is bad” tone of your comment, those groups actually support some bioenergy, and agree that emissions reductions can be achieved by the appropriate use of bioenergy.

      The term “bioenergy” covers a wide range of situations, feedstocks, scales, and end uses for the energy (heat, motive power, electricity). It includes, for example, biogas production and depending how it is done, the manufacture of biochar. The problem I have with Josh’s original article and your comment is that they are almost completely nuance-free, but the nuances are important, as the quote from the Greenpeace/FoE/RSPB report shows.

      • Jill 5 years ago

        Clearly I mention FORESTS. I have made no comments/implications regards ‘all bioenergy is bad’. Forests is the big issue. So please don’t divert the discussion. Discuss the forest biomass push and i’m sure you will find it impossible to justify or claim it is ‘renewable’ or ‘sustainable’.

        • Farmer Dave 5 years ago

          Aha, I think we might have different definitions of “forest”. To me, a “forest” is any collection of trees of any species, any age, and regardless of whether or not they were planted by humans – I regard all as forests. So I use the word “forest” to include a pine plantation, for example.

          • Jill 5 years ago

            Hmmm – It’s dangerous calling a plantation a forest. It’s an agricultural crop like cabbages. Bugger all natural ecosystem.

          • Jane 5 years ago

            It doesn’t matter whether you burn forest or plantation biomass. It is still not carbon neutral or sustainable. Plantation crops still hold carbon in the soil, roots and branches/leaves. Of course it is far worse to burn native forest because of their rich ecological systems but it is still a false climate solution to burn plantations or agricultural waste.

          • Alastair Leith 5 years ago

            Jane is correct and I’d add that when trees are logged the roots decay and release carbon and soil biota (carbon-based life) is also effected. The old growth East Gippsland Rainforests sequester more carbon than any other land use in Australia, yes more than plantations. The idea that harvesting and regrowing forests sequesters more carbon is not necessarily so and in many locations a complete myth put about by vested interests. Not to mention the negative impacts on our water catchments and rainfall patterns that logging has. Increasingly an issue in a drying climate. Old forests are more resistant to bushfires than new forests and plantations.

      • Alastair Leith 5 years ago

        I think the title of this article would have better been Burning of Native Forests is a Climate Catastrophe. Clearly what is at stake here is the (govt subsidised) continued exploitation of native forests. Recent research by University of Melbourne (MSSI) established that the remaining old growth rainforest of East Gippsland sequester more carbon per year than any other land use in Australia. And yet we continue to subsidise the logging of these priceless habitats so a long irrelevant industry around woodchopping can continue just because it has political protection.

        Now the Federal Government content to have handed back authority for forestry to the states (thanks for that PJK) now proposes to not only log these carbon sinks but to burn them?! It’s policy sophistry from a government who’s real intentions have zero to do with saving what’s left of a safe Climate.

        • Jane 5 years ago

          I agree Alastair but would go further and warn that the Liberal government has an agenda to burn a lot more than native forests. The incinerator lobby (veiled as waste to energy) is targeting Australia and has projects in every state for burning all types of waste – MSW, C&D, C&I, (including plastics and organics), agricultural and plantation biomass. I did try and explain this in a previous post with full references warning of the false climate solution that biofuels and many bioenenergy projects represent but unfortunately RenewEconomy mag has decided to remove my post….obviously they do not want to hear the bad news about bioenergy, biochar and biofuels projects and their true impact on the planet…very disappointing!

          • Alastair Leith 5 years ago

            I doubt Giles would be removing a post unless it was considered persistent trolling. Many of us in Climate movement awake to false promise of bio-fuel industry claims, Jane. I’d like to see a study comparing bio-mass to energy potentials with using same waste on farm to improve soils.

            BZE Had a look at bio-char and it’s certainly no silver bullet, even for land use emissions.

          • Jane 5 years ago

            I can assure you my post has been removed (Im not in the habit of making things up or trolling 🙂 and was not offensive in any way. I consider myself also a part of the climate movement….via environmental health and justice and the zero waste movements. Im glad to hear that there are eyes open to the false claims of the bioenergy industry…but my experience is that many in the sustainability sector often promote W2E especially for plastics and agricultural biomass wastes. The benefits of compost/AD energy is that the resource is not destroyed in the process thus returning carbon back to the environment with the added benefit of nutrients and reductions in synthetic fossil fuel fertilisers, soil amendments, water, ghg’s and toxics. The methane generated can be cleaned and even turned into biofuel if you want. Biomass incineration on the other hand destroys the resource and turns it into toxic ash which we still have to dispose. Its the full life cycle carbon assessments, including embedded energy and global interconnections, that are often not considered adequately in biofuel and biomass technology analysis’. Climate change is a multi-sector issue…its not just about fossil fuels but also intersects with industrial agriculture (a massive climate change contributor), waste and the linear economy. My point though originally was that the environment movement especially the climate change movement needs to guard against selling off one sector/arm for another. Such as saying its OK to burn plantations, ag biomass, biofuels or MSW residual waste for energy to save native forests…..it shouldn’t be either/or….but rather that we shouldn’t be burning anything for energy because we don’t need to. Here are some references that I provided in my original post -http://www.mass.gov/eea/docs/doer/renewables/biomass/manomet-biomass-report-full-hirez.pdf

            http://www.energyjustice.net/

            http://www.ntn.org.au/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/NTN-waste-to-energy-incineration-report-2013.1.pdf

            http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/the_zero_waste_solution:paperback

            http://www.ntn.org.au/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/FoEA-Biochar-Briefing.pdf

            Im sure we are more in agreement..than not 🙂

          • Giles 5 years ago

            The only person who can delete posts here is me, and I can assure you i did not. I just checked delete basket to see if i did accidentally- there has been a bit of spam – but nothing there.

          • Jane 5 years ago

            Thats reassuring thanks Giles. It is strange because I looked at the post several times…it being the first to come up as the latest comment.

    • Simon Hill 5 years ago

      In australia if we dont burn the dry wood…the forest will anyway (look at our bushfires). So in this case it is a much better idea to pull excess fuel out of the forests, producing electricity and sequestering the carbon as biochar (which can then be used fight desertfication, or plant new forests). Burning biomass and converting into biochar is the only reasonable way to reduce co2 in the atmosphere…in combination with planting new forests. The addition of carbon via fossil fuel to the surface carbon cycle is much much much worse. Renewables, biomass, and nuclear are our fuel sources for the future. Once we bring co2 back down to 250ppm, then we can quit using biomass as a fuel. Sustainable biomass production/burning and sequestration is the only way to reduce atmospheric co2 that is in our grasp today.

      Tress absorb carbon from atmosphere > Burn wood for electricity (some co2 released) > Use biochar to create new fertile soils and forest (sequestering remaining carbon)

    • Jill 5 years ago

      This is breathtakingly naive Simon, given all the evidence and science presented here. It is almost too absurd a position to respond to.

  9. Allan Barr 5 years ago

    Its 80 Percent inefficient, anyone within 100 miles can expect significant issues for example children by their teen years will have half the lung capacity. Expect reductions life expectancy decade or two. Much hotter environment, and dont worry about having to strip your paint from your house, this will do it for you. Its about the worst most corrupt application of renewable that I can think of.

  10. electroteque 5 years ago

    Meanwhile sweden burns their garbage instead.

  11. Everly Grant 5 years ago

    Sweden also import waste from other countries to power their own economy. Maybe we should learn from them. Burning wood waste, as you mention, is not really good because of all the negative emissions. We should start by teaching people the best way to reduce the waste or to use it properly. That’s what I call a proper waste management.

    our website

  12. Carnivor 4 years ago

    Quick, someone tell Tony Blair, the billionaire retired PM of the UK. He introduced BioMass in a big way into the UK under the renewable banner. In order to function the BioMass operators sourced their input (almost exclusively timber) from the third world (mainly Africa). Blair approved of this because 1. it kept his greenie constituency happy in the UK, and 2. the disastrous effects of uncontrolled wood harvesting fell upon Africans, who didn’t matter.

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