A burning question: Why we have to use wood wisely – by Karl Morris, MD, Norbord Europe

The wood panel industry is part of a cycle of grow, use, re-use and recycle in which the harvesting and regeneration of forests is balanced.

Using wood as a raw material for manufactured goods ensures that carbon sequestrated from the atmosphere and locked in the wood is prevented from escaping back into the environment until such time as it can no longer be reused or recycled.

It is far better for the environment that wood harvested from a sustainably-managed forest is converted into a product that can be used, re-used and recycled before ultimately its useful life is exhausted and it is burned to generate heat or electricity.

Despite this, the burning of freshly-felled timber as a “renewable” energy source is becoming big business, with the support and encouragement of governments.

Wood is one of mankind’s oldest building materials and is one of our most versatile raw materials. It is also a precious resource and one we need to use wisely.

For most of history, wood has been simply felled from natural forests as and when it was required, with no attempt to replenish the stock for future generations.

Today, however, forestry is a highly complex industry and, while there continues to be a problem with illegal logging, particularly in developing economies, it is (in the UK at least) a highly regulated one.

In the developed world, most of the wood consumed by industry is fast-growing softwood. More expensive slow-growing hardwoods, such as oak, beech and maple are generally used for applications where their natural strength and appearance is highly valued – in furniture for example, or flooring.

Softwood  is used both in a sawn state – for example in the building industry for roof trusses and timber frames – and in their processed state, when it is broken down into fibres, chips or strands and then reconstituted into other products, like MDF, chipboard and OSB.

The forests that provide the wood for these products are among the largest areas of managed forest anywhere in the world and play a vital role not only in the world economy but in maintaining an ecological balance in the environment.

Forests are often described as “the lungs of the world”, and for good reason. All trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen as they grow. Through the process of photosynthesis the carbon they absorb from the atmosphere is used to build fibrous material – wood, in the case of trees. Oxygen, of course, is essential to life.

Today we are all keenly aware of the effects of greenhouse gasses (CO2 in particular) are having on the environment. They are driving an increase in global temperatures which has far-reaching consequences.

Forests, by absorbing atmospheric carbon, play a vital role in regulating climate stability and it might be assumed, therefore, that we should try to reduce the number of trees we cut down every year. But in fact, the harvesting and re-planting of trees has a net beneficial effect on the environment.

The paradox is that the forestry process actually increases the rate at which carbon is removed from the atmosphere. A young tree absorbs more carbon than a mature tree because it’s building timber very quickly. In a well-managed forest, mature trees are not left standing too long but are harvested and young saplings replanted in their place. These saplings grow rapidly, absorbing carbon at a high rate in the process.

Being able to grow and re-grow is something a forest can do that no oil-well, or mine can. Wood is a renewable resource; it will never run out so long as we humans put back what we take out. This is what the forestry industry does – in fact, re-planting currently exceeds timber harvesting and the gross area of temperate softwood forest, far from dwindling, is actually increasing.

Of course, wood is not just one of our oldest building materials, it is also our oldest source of fuel. And now energy companies, searching for sustainable alternatives to non-renewable fossil fuels, see wood as an answer. Wood is, after all, a renewable resource, they argue.

It is no surprise, therefore, that wood is now in increasing demand as a renewable alternative to fossil fuels.

Biomass, along with other alternative renewable energy technologies including wind, solar and tidal power, is being promoted energetically by governments the world over. The term “biomass” is used to describe any plant or animal matter of recent origin and can include organic waste as well as fast-growing crops such as miscanthus (also known as elephant grass) and maize. Wood, however, is the most popular and readily available of these biomass fuels.

Small-scale wood-fired heating systems have enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years and have proved especially popular for local mini-district heating systems and in schools, businesses and other commercial buildings; particularly those that are off the gas network.

But the most significant development in the use of biomass is in the generation of electricity, often on a huge scale. Electricity generation based on renewable energy is seen by the government as an essential factor in helping the UK meet its legally binding EU target of obtaining 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020

Britain’s ‘national action plan’ shows that 30% of electricity, 12% of heat and 10% of transport energy coming from renewable sources would meet our overall target of 15%.

In order to switch from traditional coal or gas-fired generation to renewables, the energy companies need to invest, and heavily too. But like any business, without a real commercial incentive to justify the investment, no electricity company is going to pump hundreds of millions of pounds into new technology – however good it might be for the planet.

The Government promotes investment through a system of financial penalty on the electricity suppliers and indirect subsidies to the generators. The costs of which, are passed onto the electricity consumer.

The Renewables Obligation, introduced 11 years ago, requires each electricity supplier to source a steadily increasing percentage of their power from renewable sources. In the first year, this percentage was 3%. It has risen steadily ever since and now (April 2015 – March 2016) it stands at 29%.

These electricity suppliers meet their obligations by presenting Renewables Obligation Certificate (ROCs) to the regulator Ofgem. These prove the amount of renewable electricity the supplier has sourced. Where insufficient ROCs are presented to cover their obligation, suppliers must make a payment into a ‘buy-out’ fund. The proceeds of this fund are paid back to suppliers in proportion to how many ROCs they have presented. Hence the system creates a market and ROCs can be traded at prices that differ from the buy-out price.

The purpose of these schemes is to make it worthwhile for the generators to reduce to a minimum their use of otherwise attractive fossil fuels in favour of renewable alternatives.

That is why the UK’s biggest power generators are now heavily involved in burning biomass alongside more traditional fuels. The perfect example of this is Drax in Yorkshire – for many years known as the UK’s biggest coal power station and, more controversially, our single largest emitter of CO2.  Drax has recently spent millions converting itself into a biomass facility and now burns wood as well as fossil fuels.

Burning wood is seen as a green alternative to coal; after all, wood is renewable and as we have seen, trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. Hence proponents of large-scale biomass generation argue that burning wood is carbon-neutral. But these plants burn wood fibre at a phenomenal rate; in 2014 Drax is believed to have burned over 11,300 tonnes of biomass per day in two of its six units. This year, a third unit is expected to become operational. 

The trees that provide that feedstock will have taken years to absorb the carbon that, in a matter of hours, is released back into the atmosphere. Replanting with trees will eventually recover that carbon; but over decades rather than hours; and global warming is an issue we face today.

Felling trees simply to burn them for fuel on an industrial scale is therefore more likely to prove a disaster for the environment, than a benefit. Felling and replanting only contributes to a net reduction in carbon emissions if the trees that are cut down are then preserved in the form of durable products That’s because these products store the carbon that the trees have absorbed as they have grown rather than releasing it immediately as a power station does.

Wood fibre is our industry’s primary raw material and we rely  on UK wood, both virgin and recovered. The industry is now under huge pressure from the biomass energy sector because the government subsidies allow the energy generators to pay more than twice the price paid by the UK wood panel industry. As a result, this has driven up average wood prices by 60% in the past five years.

So the government’s misguided attempt to wean the power industry off fossil fuels and onto so-called ‘green’ renewables is not only failing to help the environment but also failing to protect the economy. Burning trees to generate electricity is costing consumers and tax-payers billions without the benefit to the environment it would appear to bring.

On the contrary: it is disadvantaging an industry that not only employs thousands of people in the UK but also has a commendably small carbon footprint.

In 2013, following vigorous lobbying by the furniture and wood panel products industries (not to mention harsh criticism by environmental groups including Greenpeace), the government announced that it would cap subsidies to new electricity-only biomass plants and end them altogether by 2027.

This was at least a return to common sense but sadly it will prove a belated and costly U-turn. Before we notice any improvement, the problem will worsen; many sub-50MW plants have recently come on stream or are in the planning with UK wood as a source of burning material most likely in their sights.

For further information, call 01786 812 921 or visit www.norbord.co.uk.