There is a lot of public concern about the wider ethics of forestry, and of the production of biomass in particular, so I thought I should make my position clear. The short version is:
I am not interested in promoting any form of land management, or energy use, that is not sustainable.
There is a more complete and thorough discussion of the wider aspects of sustainability in relation to forestry and biomass below, as well as information about the professional ethics I have signed up to as part of my Institute of Chartered Foresters membership. If you have any questions, or if you wish to know a specific detail not covered, then please contact me here, or on twitter. I'd be happy to discuss it - in public if you wish.
OK, first things first, the UK forestry industry is extremely tightly regulated and deemed by independent international bodies to be low risk. In the UK, because of our historical land management practices, managed woodland is typically more biodiverse and more valuable than unmanaged woodland. I spend a considerable amount of time and effort trying to get my clients, and those of you who read my articles and tweets, to manage woodland in a sustainable manner which increases its value from environmental and social points of view as well as in economic terms. I also promote new woodland planting wherever possible (in fact, I probably bore some people on the subject).
I am a strong supporter of rewilding substantial areas, and would love to see a more diverse mixture of habitats and species, particularly in upland areas which are often impoverished in terms of their biodiversity. I don't currently provide forestry support and advice on an international basis, but if I do, I will be carrying these ethics with me.
If you want to rape and pillage your way through a woodland, then I'm not interested.
I am a full professional member of the Institute of Chartered Foresters. Part of continuing membership of the Institute is an obligation to:
"...uphold the integrity and reputation of the profession of forestry and arboriculture and to safeguard the public interest in matters of safety and health and otherwise. Members must exercise their professional skills and judgement to the best of their abilities and discharge their professional responsibilities with integrity."
All members of the Institute are bound by the Code of Conduct and must:
- Standard 1 - Act with integrity
- Standard 2 - Always provide a high standard of service
- Standard 3 - Treat others with respect
- Standard 4 - Take responsibility
- Standard 5 - Act in a way that promotes trust in the profession
- Standard 6 - Have regard for sustainability throughout your work
If at any stage you think my ethics or conduct do not match these expectations, then please contact me in the first instance. I would be very surprised if anything comes up that can't be dealt with at this stage (I've not had a single complaint to date) but you do also have recourse to contact the ICF if you're not satisfied.
Biomass / Woodfuel
I like biomass, I would like more people to use locally grown wood to heat their buildings instead of fossil fuels.
There are however, some concerns about the ethics and sustainability of its use, these vary in scale and complexity:
Logs are great, they provide a market for poor quality timber which supports woodland management, they replace fossil fuels like oil and gas, and they get people more interested in forestry (which is a positive thing). There are problems however, with excess particulate matter in the atmosphere, and other nasty gasses released when the stove is used incorrectly (or the fuel is contaminated). I have put in a lot of work trying to raise understanding of stove use to minimise or eliminate these problems - most notably the Log Book. I always recommend that stove users burn correctly, and use good quality fuel, which is appropriate for their situation. If fuel is sourced from the UK, then land management sustainability worries are minimal (see above) but I do have concerns about unnecessarily kiln dried material and the sustainability of material that is imported but not FSC or PEFC accredited.
Log systems are not always the right answer, and some situations exist where they are not appropriate (urban areas for example). However, it would be disingenuous to lay all the air pollution problems at the stove door, as the vast majority of this issue is a result of traffic exhaust, or industry.
Wood chip is a high bulk / low value product and I would suggest that transporting it over long distances is probably not economic. If it's sourced from the UK and is going into a well-designed supply chain (and boiler), then I'm confident that sustainability worries are small, if not, then its relative merits really depend on the detail. Similar concerns do exist about air quality, though chip systems are typically less able to handle any old rubbish, and should always be run using high quality fuel. As with log stoves, chip systems are not a single answer to renewable energy, but they can form part of the answer.
There are some complaints from other forestry based industries that the timber should be going to them, but that is a separate issue (which I've dealt with below).
Pellets are very highly refined, and typically will burn more cleanly than either logs or chip (if not, then they'll probably just go out). It is technologically feasible to produce a pellet and ship it here from another continent and still produce less CO2 than coal - though this does depend to a great extent on the timescales and methods of accounting (which I'm currently studying for my PhD). In most cases, they are better environmentally, than many fossil fuelled systems - though not necessarily other renewables. In a lot of cases pellets are formed from dried waste sawdust at a milling site, which would otherwise just be discarded and as such can provide a useful revenue stream for the supplier. However, this increase in demand for wood particularly in very large quantities, is cited by a worryingly large number of environmental organisations as a driver of deforestation. This is less of a problem on the small scale (<200kW installations) but large scale power generation uses many thousands of tonnes of these pellets and virtually all of them are imported. I am not anti-pellets per se, but there appears to be significant work still to do in establishing appropriate supply chains so that don't just trash someone else’s forests because ours are all off limits. This is recognised by a number of large scale pellet users, and a considerable amount of work is underway to ensure the sustainability of these supply chains (the Sustainable Biomass Partnership for example). In terms of ethnics and source, I would only recommend getting fully certified pellets (FSC, PEFC, or SBP with a full chain of custody) from a country with a reputable forestry industry - Austria or Canada for example.
I do occasionally work with pellet importers to help them do their applications for BSL, but I think it's unlikely that I would choose to do business with anyone importing non-certified pellets.
Efficiency varies hugely with use: heat only systems are typically very efficient; and CHP systems, for the most part also make good use of the energy available (depending on the technology). However, electricity only systems are basically rubbish from an efficiency standpoint - the average efficiency of a coal-fired power station is 35%. In the UK we are saddled with some antiquated coal-fired power stations, which we still need if everyone wants to have lighting. I don't endorse the concept of burning coal for energy (which as an idea is practically Victorian) and I certainly won't be offering my support to anyone who suggests we should have more of them. However, if we can make use of the existing infrastructure by burning sustainable biomass, then this does potentially provide a stop-gap measure allowing us to decarbonise our electricity production. I am strongly in favour of investing heavily in other renewable technologies (and I quite like looking at wind turbines).
There are two main groups of people who criticise biomass as being unsustainable: NGOs (or other environmental bodies), and lobbyists. The NGOs for the most part are in favour of smaller scale biomass use but wary of large scale use for power generation, and want to ensure sustainable forest management. This is more or less my own position, and I don't have a problem with it. On the other hand, I do find it extremely frustrating that many of the lobbyists are paid for by the panel board industry. Many of their arguments are disingenuous or just plain wrong, and it's all paid for by an industry that competes for the same feedstock - I'll let you decide whether you're happy with that or not.