Parker Gallant: Biomass is carbon neutral, and the world is flat!

(March 5, 2014) The largest coal generation plant in the UK is transforming itself by converting half of its coal burning generation units into biomass (wood pellets) by 2016.

By that time Drax Group PLC will have three of their six, 660 MW units, converted to biomass and will require 7 million tons of wood pellets annually for fuel. To put a context around the latter number, the information available through research on the Internet indicates it takes approximately 2 ½ tons of forest to produce one ton of wood pellets. One acre of mature forest contains approximately 4 tons of wood, meaning to produce 7 million tons would require about 4,375,000 acres or 6,800 square miles of forest. That amount is equal to clear cutting mature  forests 10 times the size of Toronto each year.

Those units would annually generate approximately 17 terawatts (TWh) of electricity — about 3/4% of annual electricity consumption in the UK — and produce 150% of C02 emissions of coal generation and 300% of gas generation. This would result in emissions of approximately 7 million tons annually. Because biomass has received the designation of being “renewable” however, those emissions don’t count against them. Replant the forests and 40-50 years later they will have absorbed the same amount of CO2 that burning them emitted; or at least that is the message we get from the proponents.

Drax is not even sourcing the pellets from the UK. They have contracted to buy pellets from North and South America and established two wood pellet plants in the southern US to produce 900,000 tons. That production will be shipped by ocean to a special port and transported by rail to the Drax plant. Production of wood pellets also consumes electricity and the range of consumption is dependent on moisture content of the harvested forest. Consumption ranges from 250 kWh per ton to 300 kWh, dependent on moisture content. Production from wet sawdust would also consume the equivalent of 400 kWh of heat energy. At a rough estimate the 7 million tons that Drax will use may consume 4 TWh without factoring in energy used or emissions created from handling and shipping them from those southern US states.

There was some bad news for Drax recently as the UK government decided that biomass subsidies would not keep climbing as the “carbon price floor” — levied on fossil fuel production (and due to rise further) — on electricity consumption has caused a backlash from manufacturers, consumer groups and energy suppliers who are concerned that the “tax will push up prices, make the UK uncompetitive and force the premature closure of coal-fired power plants, increasing the risk of blackouts. As a result, the chief executive of Drax said they “should be compensated for “harm” to its biomass-burning unit”.

Looking at Ontario and its plans for biomass, the recently announced revision of the Long-Term Energy Plan (LTEP) by Energy Minister Chiarelli indicates that we will be looking to acquire a maximum of 740 MW. Most of this has already been announced as two Northern Ontario coal-fired generation units of provincially owned Ontario Power Generation (OPG) are in the process of conversion. Atikokan (200 MW) and Thunder Bay (300 MW to become 150 MW) are both being converted to biomass (the latter “advanced” biomass) and represent 61% of the “planned” biomass capacity of the LTEP. While the combined capacity is significant, it is unlikely that either unit will run at anything close to capacity. Concerns have already been expressed by the “Energy Task Force” that the planned pellet inventory level for the advanced biomass Thunder Bay plant will only be 15,000 tons of pellets; enough to produce about 25,000 MWh but in a cold snap could be fully utilized in a few days. The Atikokan plant is expected to operate at about 12% of its capacity, meaning it will produce about 200,000 MWh on an annual basis at a conversion (capital) cost of $170 million and fuel costs of over $200 per ton. Energy produced will be exceedingly expensive and north of 50 cents per kWh.

In the event that OPG is required to run both of these units at an annual level of say; 50%, to ensure adequate power supply, they will consume 300,000 tons of pellets. Production of this volume would require clear cutting 187,000 acres (300 square miles) of mature forest and produce about 1.5 million megawatt hours of electricity (enough to power about 155,000 average households) and those clear cut forests would take over 40 years to replenish themselves. The burning of those 300,000 tons of pellets would produce emissions (dependent on moisture content) in excess of 300,000 tons. The latter is however considered irrelevant as biomass is considered “renewable” because the trees used to produce the pellets; already absorbed the CO2 the burning process will produce.

Under the current Ontario Power Authority Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program, biomass is paid 15.6 cents a kWh and contracted generators are eligible for a cost of living addition of up to 50%. There are further “adders” for aboriginal, community groups or public sector participants (presumably OPG qualifies under the latter).

While the benefit of biomass is that it is rampable (we can use it when we actually need it), unlike wind or solar the facts are clear that it is not emission neutral, it is not cheap and it destroys the natural forest that can carbon capture. It also emits more CO2 than coal plants and to this writer it seems strange that the UK will look to North and South America to supply them with biomass fuel that requires processing and shipment thousands of miles, when they (Drax) could use locally mined coal to generate power. Ironically that is exactly what Germany is doing to augment its at-risk electricity generating system.   Germany is building and opening 10 new coal plants (7,285 MW) in the next two years bringing their hard coal generation capacity to over 32,000 MW, which is (ironically) close to the total generating capacity of all Ontario generators.

Presumably the foregoing means that Al Gore will not be visiting Germany to praise Chancellor Merkel as he recently did for Ontario’s Premier Wynne but perhaps it’s not praise from Gore that Germany is seeking; simply relief from their soaring electricity bills!

Perhaps it is time for Ontario to move forward and end the obsession to hypothetically green the electricity sector and stop the incessant climb in our energy bills.

The world is not flat; only in the minds of the politicians in charge of the Ontario energy portfolio!

Parker Gallant is a retired bank executive and a former director of Energy Probe Research Foundation. As with all independent bloggers on this site, Parker’s views do not necessarily reflect those of Energy Probe.

This entry was posted in Alternative Energy, Climate Change, Electricity, Power Generation in Ontario, Reforming Ontario's Electrical Generation Sector, Renewables and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Parker Gallant: Biomass is carbon neutral, and the world is flat!

  1. Pingback: Bio-Mass generation is “carbon neutral”?……RIGHT!…….and the “World is Flat”! | The Big Green Lie

  2. Hurry up with a house cleaning at Queen’s Park before we are all out in the street heating our tents with candles!!!!!

  3. Cold Air says:

    Reblogged this on Colder Air and commented:
    Interesting and informative: groups in the norht are noting Thunder Bay (and I assum Atikokan) should have far more fuel inventory on site that currently planned – which makes sense to me.

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  6. Art Betke says:

    One acre of mature forest contains a lot more than 4 tons of wood, about 100 times more.

    • John Galt III says:

      I noticed that too and knew it was wrong.

      I live in the Flathead National Forest in Montana, The forest is very heavily wooded and contains about 37 tons per acre – 99% softwoods. The calculation is 87,010,000 tons of wood (page 5) divided by 2,251,950 acres (page 2).

      Click to access flathead.pdf

      The densest forests in the world by biomass are the coastal redwoods in California. They contain at maximum 1,500 tons per acre. I read it on an information board by one of the trees when I was there a few years ago and it made sense seeing as how redwoods grow 350 feet tall.

      The wood used in Europe is from the United States forests in the South and are actually chipped residue from logging. I’ve seen TV shows on this. They don’t use the logs, just the branches, twigs, and trees too small to process. You can’t make a 2″ by 6″ out of a 5 ” diameter tree. Good logs are way too valuable to burn as fuel. Forest product companies here do the same thing and use leftover biomass for their boilers or sell to linerboard companies etc.

      Just my two cents,

  7. Source of material from the University of Florida here:

    “If we assume half of the logging residues are available for energy, then on each acre harvested about 7 green tons of wood are available, which equals about 3 dry tons of wood.”

    I also sourced information from Partnership for Policy Integrity here: which has excellent information and the following quote from the referenced extensive post on their website:

    “An unknown amount of wood will be required for co-firing in coal plants, with estimates for Ohio alone, where the State’s Public Utilities Commission has approved over 2,100 MW of biomass power, of about 20 million tons of wood required for fuel annually”

    They won’t be clear-cutting redwood forests in California, Oregon, Washington or British Columbia as most of those are protected. They shouldn’t be using forest floor residue or they will destroy habitat, nutrients, etc. My guess is that they won’t just cut the trees not suitable for lumber! Their harvest will be the complete forest some of which may find its way to lumber mills or to foreign markets without processing. The PIPI posting brings out some of those facts.

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