Firewood: the premodern solution to Britain’s energy crisis
Biomass is already our greatest source of renewable energy
Winter is coming, and it’s going to be tough. With energy prices rocketing, affluent Western European countries like Germany and Belgium are beginning to echo previously crisis-struck nations like Greece and Lebanon as ordinary people prepare to return to heating their homes with firewood, just to keep warm. In Germany, Google searches for firewood have gone through the roof as anxious consumers stock up for winter; and sales of woodburning stoves have been so robust that Germany’s undergoing a shortage, as Europe’s industrial powerhouse returns to pre-industrial survival methods.
But mankind’s oldest means of keeping warm isn’t just for ordinary householders. Most people don’t realise that a decent chunk of Britain’s electricity — around 6.5% last quarter — comes from burning biomass, mostly wood, centred on the vast Drax power station. In fact, despite all the attention given to wind and wave power, biomass is Britain’s greatest source of renewable energy at around 40% of the total, the same percentage as in the EU where biomass heats 50 million homes. As the president of the World Bionergy Association, Christian Rakos notes, wood-dominated biomass already makes “a greater contribution to Europe’s renewable energy goals than all the continent’s wind and solar output combined”.
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Indeed, as a recent Chatham House paper notes, the UK is the world’s biggest single consumer of wood for energy generation: “in 2018 [Britain] consumed an estimated 8.3 million tonnes, representing 21 per cent of all the wood pellets produced worldwide”. It may not be great for curbing carbon emissions, despite its technical status as a renewable resource, but energy derived from wood is at least renewable, reliable and relatively secure from dependence on a fluctuating global energy market. But only up to a point. Around 80% of the wood burned at Drax is imported from America. As Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Kwasi Kwarteng recently cautioned,“There’s no point getting it from Louisiana — that isn’t sustainable … transporting these wood pellets halfway across the world — that doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”
He’s right. Wood biomass is a vital part of Britain’s energy mix until the proposed new nuclear power stations come onstream, but the market for wood pellets isn’t immune to the rising energy prices Putin’s war on Ukraine has wrought. Many of Western Europe’s power stations were dependent on compressed wood pellets imported from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, now cut off by the war and sanctions. As a result, the price of American wood pellets is already climbing, even leaving aside the undesirability, for the climate, of importing from the other side of the world a resource that literally grows on trees.
For the medium term, Britain should secure its own domestic supply of wood for energy generation, so here’s my modest proposal: cut down our conifer plantations and burn them. As environmentalists have complained for years, the Forestry Commission and other large landowners have blanketed Britain’s precious uplands and heathlands with non-native conifers like Sitka spruce for generations, with a devastating effect on our native wildlife. As the Woodland Trust notes, “approximately 40% (227,000ha) of the remaining ancient woodland in the UK has been cleared and replanted with dense non-native plantations”. In his excellent book Rebirding, the conservationist Benedict Macdonald observed plaintively that conifer plantations make up 51% of Britain’s woodland, “alien crops” which “come with no useful insect package, and do not ‘compute’ for Britain’s native wildlife”. As he notes, “There is, in truth, no larger single crop for wildlife prevention in our country.” His solution, “fell the conifers and regrow native trees in our national forests,” because “to get our precious woodlands back… we need to ask for the existing trees to be cut down.”
On the face of it, it seems an elegant solution: we already burn wood in vast quantities for energy, but we import almost all of it from the US. At the same time, we’re experiencing a collapse in our native wildlife as our precious natural habitats are blanketed in non-native trees for which no commercial or ecological logic exists. If we fell our alien conifers and burn them, replacing them with either native broadleaf woodland or other threatened habitats like peat bogs or heathland, we can keep the lights on and bring back Britain’s nature, surely a win-win solution. Sometimes a crisis really can be an opportunity: forget fracking, it’s time to get Britain logging.
” but the market for wood pellets isn’t immune to the rising energy prices Putin’s war on Ukraine has wrought.”
Actually it is the West’s response to the war which has wrought…You could call it ‘Biden’s energy inflation’ more then Putin’s if you realize it is the Western Sanctions which directly are responsible. The war is one thing you can talk of on right and wrong – but the energy inflation is from the West’s response to it.
Like blaming covid on the children’s destroyed education and the Trillions spent in a global economy destroying way – when it is the ‘Response to Covid’ which is the actual cause.
Are you saying we shouldn’t put sanctions on Russia for its illegal war in the Ukraine? Instead the west should help Russia by continuing to buy oil, gas and wood pellets while at the same time supplying weapons to the Ukrainians?!? Neither moral or just, we either support one side or the other, We are supporting the Ukrainians if you’re not sure.
Supporting both sides when inflated prices are available has been going on since Adam’s time! Very good money in it!
If it wasn’t the norm, backward Middle Eastern and Africal countries would be fighting each other with scimitars and blow pipes instead of sophisticated UK /USA made weapons!
If it wasn’t for America you’d be writing and speaking German now.
Bravo Aris! Great idea.
(Though we should be fracking too).
Yeah but it ain’t possible to grow broad leaf trees in England due to grey squirrels killing them all when they are about 10 feet tall. Check out BBC Countryfile’s last episode when it managed to fit this revelation in between its usual climate change hysteria.
We were told in the 1970’s by the UK government propaganda machine that the North Sea natural gas field discovery would be good for the next 100 years for domestic consumers.
What happened to that gas? Blown away, generating electricity by way of gas turbines!!
Yet again the silent majority have been conned and now paying the price for gross stupidity, lack of forward thinking and planning
The monopolistic energy companies are taking us for a ride with impunity. The government have no answers or are showing LEADERSHIP in the face of crises.
Those still with fireplaces will end up burning their furniture, doors, door frames and non plastic window frames this Winter then be fined for creating smoke in smokeless zones. The elderly and infirm will die of either hunger and or exposure.
People will be mugged for a cauliflower and logs. Troops will be on the streets to keep order as civil unrest manifests itself and martial law declared.
The government have had a practice run with Covid regulations.
Internationally the future is grim and history should remind us that such events are a recipe for WW3 to break out, the sabre rattling has already begun. Nobody listened to Churchill’s warnings either!
Britain is run by weedy, lily livered politicians who have only self interest at heart, the days of great Statesmen have long gone.
The MOD can’t stop immigrants in rubber boats so how could they stop the Russians?
The media are hyping up the energy crisis every moment to cause mass hysteria and depression. Better burn the newspapers and switch off the Internet and look outside the windows, if there are any windows left. The holes where windows used to be will see laundry hanging out of those holes, with holes in clothing to match the holes in the roads and eventually holes in the cars as nobody will be able to afford to replace them. It will be a country full of more holes!
Never mind wood pellets, a few pellets of Uranium 235 could supply all the energy we need but the dogooders and Green people won’t have it.
Why on Earth would anybody wish to live in the taxed out of sight UK?
You couldn’t make this up.
The sky is falling !
No it isn’t! If it was the Tories would have sold off the rain cluds to the French and you’d all be paying for your rain! I’m told the so-called CO² capture units are really capturing fresh air as it too is to be sold off, to the Chinese and you mugs are to pay for it by the gallon!
I think you’ll find stopping the Russians will be a lot easier. You see we tend not to use sophisticated weapons systems to destroy immigrants.
As for nuclear power would you b happy to store some of those depleted uranium pellets in your back garden? I would prefer to have solar panels on my roof and a wind turbine at the end of my road.
The only point I can agree on is the ineptitude of the politicians we currently have, they all see to dance to the tune of large multinational companies. How about growing a pair and standing up to all the corruption and tax dodging. Sort this out, put into place a plan to put sola panels on as many buildings as is possible, more wind farms and put hydro turbines on all weirs to produce small scale power locally. The solutions are out their, they just need the drive to put them in place. And stop asking people if they want them. Stop consulting the general public, just build the infrastructure we need to keep the lights on!
And I agree with you except for one point: you draw a distinction between the corrupt and the politicians! To knowingly work hand in glove with (and to benefit hugely from) corrupt wealthy people is IN ITSELF highly corrupt. It’s not stupidity or naivety that causes this: it’s greed: the stuff Thatcher said was good!
Solar panels are not environmentally friendly. Wind farms harm wildlife. You’ve been duped by the climate change hysterics.
Many years ago I worked on a big government project to determine the feasibility of disposing of radioactive waste by various methods. It was great fun working offshore and down mines on the government shilling.
None of the methods inspired any confidence however. But with Musk’s rockets getting increasingly cheap and reliable blasting the stuff into space would probably be the best option, with safeguards obviously.
I still find it ridiculous that wood pellets (Biomass) are considered a ‘renewable’. I also wasn’t aware of the quantity of non native tree species and their detrimental effect on the natural environment. Thanks for the education !
It is renewable, with one important condition. The wood must grow at the same rate it’s being burned at. Stevens croft has been doing it at 44MW for years.
And we can’t grow new broad leaf trees because the grey squirrels chew them to death – all of them!
Wouldn’t it be better to have a mix of energy/fuel sources which I think should include fossil fuels, fracking and nuclear?
We’re suffering from global warming due to using fossil fuels so No. Fracking shouldn’t even be on the table and nuclear comes with its own set of problems.
Correct but sadly, unpopular I see. They’re all off to Lemming Cliff: really lively rhere this time of year I’m told: blissful!
The man made global warming issue has been vastly oversold. Yes, an increase in CO2 in the troposphere has a warming effect. But it is small and diminishing. Even the IPCC only ascribes 50 % of the warming of the past 140 years to man’s emissions. And because it is a logarithmic ( ie the inverse of exponential) relationship of temperature to atmospheric CO2, very little more temperature rise due to this cause can be expected. That is explicitly recognised in the use by the IPCC of Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity as a measure of temperature change due to a doubling of atmospheric CO2 – that is a logarithmic relationship. So man made global warming is not a great concern to me. However, the exaggerations, distortions, misrepresentations and downright falsehoods promulgated by extremists and the media, are a concern. And the mendacity of our political class on this whole issue is even more of a concern
I believe it’s better to think of native woodlands and the solar spruce plantations as totally different things. The conifer trees are crops they have a 30-40 year rotation but they produce the lumber we use to build with etc, many of the UK pellet producers for private usage (taking drax out of the equation) have pellet mills on the sites of the sawmills, producing pellets from the byproduct of the timber yard. This seems very sensible and efficient to me.
We are doing a lot to preserve native woodland, and are planting more, but in conjunction with the commercial sika woodlands which basically are like a field of wheat standing for much longer, also absorbing CO2 over their lifespan.
As with everything to do with energy and net zero, it’s taking the best elements from each technology and combining everything into the mix.
..agree for the most part: but add the CO² emitted from the burning to the loss of yree sequestration and it’s a definite no-no I fear: but I’m no expert so maybe someone will educate me on the yrue CO² cost?
Ah you’re wrong there about the development of native woodland in England anyway.
Check out the latest episode of Countryfile Andrew. A forestry expert in developing broad leaf forests stated, unequivocally, that he’d lose his job if he proposed funding the planting of new forests of broad leaf trees because it would be a complete waste of money due to grey squirrels comprehensively destroying the new trees!!
This website is interesting. It shows where our electricity comes from minute by minute.
The ridiculousness of burning wood as an “environmental initiative” is apparent to anyone with a passing knowledge of energy science.
Fossil fuel is burned to cut the wood (chainsaws, or tree farmers).
Fossil fuel is used to transform the wood into pellets or to cut it down to size.
Fossil fuel is used to transport the wood to the biomass generator.
The biomass is burned to produce electricity as perhaps 25-30% efficiency. The rest is lost as waste heat.
The electricity travels long distances to the end-user at line losses that total 8-15%.
One of the main uses for electricity by the end user is to produce heat.
The only logical use of biomass is burning it as locally as possible directly to make heat. (ie: a woodstove, or perhaps a neighbourhood system).
The use of biomass to make electricity is for show. It’s of even less use than plastic straws.
…or tie in into bundles and insulate your homes with it! Cut out the “middle man”. Hemp is best!
Promoting biomass against fossil fuels only makes sense as part of the Net Zero campaign.
How sure should we be that CO2 is really having the effects that are being claimed for it?
None of the scientists who question the claims ever seem to be given the chance to debate with those who do.
Reminds me of the C19 lockdown hysteria.
No don’t forget fracking, but this is a good idea too, and frankly we’ll need both.
Fracking is adding carbon to the atmosphere from non-renewable fossil resources. Something we should have stopped doing decades ago.
When they converted Drax from coal to wood there was a lot of discussion about how much wood we would need and it was clear that the UK’s in-house supply is hopelessly inadequate. I wonder if anyone has the figures. It’s surprising how many trees you can plant in a small area. All the same, anyone with a woodburning stove knows how rapidly you get through the stuff and I wondered if it might be the case that you either plant trees and stay warm or else grow food and not get hungry. I don’t know the answer but if anyone does I’d be interested to know.
Drax burns 8 million tonnes of wood pellets per year, most of them kiln dried and imported. We give it hundreds of millions of pounds to do this. The UK’s entire production of wood for all purposes is about 2 million tonnes. We don’t grow wood at anything like the rate Drax uses, so the CO2 emitted is adding to the problem. Drax should close, although I’m willing to accept the idea of burning our plantations and replanting native species, then closing Drax.
Yes, fusion will save us all one day, but it will have to be more fission first, and not just Hinkley and Sizewell.
Kiln dried? how daft is that?
What fuel is burned to dry the pellets? Or to ship the wood? It’s not sounding that renewable to me
Look up hemp..
It makes more sense to re-wild conifer plantations than it does to give up arable land that grows our food. But when has doing anything that makes sense rather than money been fashionable.
Or you could build nuclear power plants and live in the 21st Century.
Sure but you’ll need a heavy winter coat while you wait: ‘takes 10 years or so I’m told!
The idea of burning wood in order to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide is insane. Before it has been burned the actual wood is sequestrating carbon dioxide. When you chop down a tree and burn it that carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, and it takes years of re-growing forests to replace the said wood. You might as well say that burning coal is also making use of a renewable resource, since the carbon dioxide derived from burning coal will be absorbed by new vegetation, the said vegetation will decay and (perhaps) turn into peat and in a few million years the carbon will have turned into coal again.
Some years ago I visited the town of Puerto Vallarta on the Mexican coast. The town sits in a valley facing the ocean. One day, as I was out boating I noticed that on a clear day you could see nothing, just a brown layer and a few hilltops, the little town was gone. Asking my friendly guide, who had lived in Los Angeles for a while, if this pollution was the result of the stinking diesel fueled trucks and busses. His answer was perhaps germane to this conversation. He said in part but the pollution is at it’s worst when it gets cool and everyone heats their homes burning up all the woods. In addition, the very same farmers were constantly looking for a solution to the new erosion problem that seems to have come about due to: Climate Change of course.
The moral of the story is that everyone did what they could to stop using fossil fuels and change nature but forgot the real pollution and erosion. Sounds just like the rest of the world.
The good news; the pollution goes on but the Cartels who run the place are looking for a solution in population control.
Learn to knit it provides warm clothing from a sustainable source. Get moving. Become more reliant upon leg power, go to bed an hour earlier than you would normally, this not only cuts down on energy consumption for the need to keep warm, just pile the coats on the bed, you will soon be warm, all of the other, non self made, energy, ceases to be required in bed. No tv, no putting the kettle on and no cooking of snacks and less if any lighting. The double whammy of this is that those who rise early (a benefit of early nights), have more natural energy and are apt to get things done.
The need in my view is not to find ways of creating energy until we have learned to maximise our own ability in using what we have ourselves.
Of course I realise the need of energy in the bigger picture but we’ve all become rather needy and reliant upon others to provide what we think we need.
Four steres purchased here in France ready for the winter time. Just make sure you buy a chain saw!
Idiotic. We should be planting trees, not burning them. Any reduction in global warming from biomass is most probably trivial or even negative. We might well need reduced carbon emissions, but we don’t need “renewables” – there’s no shortage of energy requiring that unsustainable sources be cut off early.
can one burn dried out eco zealot sandaloids? .. politicians draylon, terylene, bri nylon, polyester acetate clothing would be great kindling to try them too?
Who needs heating? One only has to look at ” the pipl” in Britain’s streets to see that hoodies, T shirts and tracksuits are worn by 90 something percent of the populus 365 days a year? To me, turning on a radiator is a serious technical challenge, but putting on flannel shirts, tweed coats, Goretex, woollen jerseys polo necks, fleeces, hats and caps plus boots or shoes and appropriate socks is not?
Clearly none of the heat moaners have ever stayed in Norfolk for a couple of days shooting, or in Leicestershire for a couple of days Hunting and attempted to run a warm bath, or find heat?
Actually this author’s solution won’t work because we can’t successfully grow broad leaf trees – as I found out to my amazement in the last episode of Countryfile, in which a forestry expert in broad leaf trees stated, unequivocally, that it’s a waste of money planting broad leaf trees as grey squirrels strip the bark and kill them all.
I never knew this. It’s a fundamental argument for eradicating grey squirrels, but bleeding hearts won’t allow it – so this country will gradually run out of broad leaf trees.
Imagine, no oaks, beech etc in England.
Sounds like a plan! But what about the emission of CO² and loss of CO² sequestration (replacement saplings can only absorb a tiny fractionof the felled mature tree surely?)
Surely that must put the kibosh on all this: or am I missing something?
Neither does it make any sense to transport shale gas halfway round the world.
Great article which makes total sense apart from the final sentence
I can actually come up with some figures. Not massively relevant to Drax, but at least something to start with. I use about 5 m2 for heating a house for a single day. Obviously heating only, and only for ‘heating required’ days. Non-native coppicing, and all the points about non-native insects etc. are accepted.
5 square meters of wood to heat 1 house for 1 day ?
What does that even mean ?
All I can add is that a stere is 1 cubic meter, which is a French measurement and 4 steres should last just heating the house all winter. Our water is still heated by oil.
4cubes for us per winter -but that is NZ, and our house is small – 100m2 i would think that for a bigger house in a UK winter you are looking at 8m2 minimum-which is a big pile of wood. Our heat pump costs the same to run and can be adjusted more easily for max economy…we often use both to complement each other.
Am also from NZ and use a wood burner. We have heat pumps, which my wife uses in short bursts, but I prefer the welcoming flicker and crackle from the wood burner, and its radiant heat. Nice to sit or stand near it and feel the radiant energy on your body. However, there is a lot of work with wood. Although I have essentially endless amounts of wood within 50m of the house, there is the cutting, gathering, stacking, lugging in to the house, cleaning out the ashes etc, to consider. Wood is only a realistic option For the fortunate few.
I don’t understand your figures. Are you saying you use 5m squared of woodland a day? That’s a hell of a lot. Do you mean cubed? That’s a hell of a lot of wood too. I have a wood burning stove and don’t use anything like that amount. ♂️
You make it sound like British wildlife is on the edge of a precipice… It isn’t.. In fact most is doing quite well… Once you have cut and burnt all the softwood…probably lasting 20 years…. What is going to fuel the nation for the next 100 years… Whilst the native hardwoods mature… At this point the Americans will have found another market for their pellets…. So our lights will go out… And you will have to trade your electric car in for a horse…. We will be going back to something like the middle ages….
In that 20 years how many dams, nuclear plants and fracking sites could be built, largely disappearing the UKs need for wood pellets?
In the next 20 years probably no dams… And only the nuclear power stations that are already due to come on line… Nobody wants their valley flooding… The cost of decommissioning the old nuclear power plants is just as big as building new ones…
I said could be built, with the right political foresight then the UK could put itself in a situation where it wasn’t reliant on foreign pellets by the time the conifers had been burned.
But you’re right I have no faith that it would actually happen
As many as could be built in the last 20 years, but of course none were built. Greens hate dams more than they hate gas.
A very germane point,it’s increasingly looking as if Green Party ideology is based around hating anything & everything that has benefitted mankind in the past two centuries.There is a vacancy for a Pol Pot in Green Party HQ !
When we moved into our 12 acre smallholding 25 years ago we planted a half acre coppice of biomass willow. It’s kept our winter heating going on it’s own during that time. We use gas for hot water and cooking. It’s divided into sections and we cut sections in sequence every few years which then regrows. It’s also good for wildlife. The small birds love it especially Willow Warblers and its an early source of nectar and pollen for pollinating insects. We let the undergrowth do what it wants which is a pain when you come to cut it but the benefit is that there’s masses of brambles, Rosebay Willowherb and other stuff which is great for birds and insects.
We realise that we are lucky and privileged to be able to do it but it shows that there is an alternative to slow growing hardwoods and fast growing conifers.
“Most doing quite well”? David Attenborough says 50% have gone extinct. Now I don’t know who to nelieve! Lol..
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