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Technology, they say, will provide the answers to all our future energy
Harnessing the power of the sun, wind and ocean currents using state-of-the-art
instruments is seen the world over as key to achieving domestic energy security
and combating carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming.
But in amongst all this technological wizardry remains one energy source that
humans have relied upon since time immemorial; an energy source that is now
being seen as a key component in renewable energy production for future
generations: the humble tree.
Governments around the world are paying power stations to burn wood to generate
In the UK, subsidies for so-called biomass energy were introduced in 2002, and
some of the country's biggest stations are burning an ever increasing amount of
wood alongside more traditional coal; and being paid handsomely for doing so.
In theory, burning wood only releases the carbon that was stored by the trees
when growing, so there is no net increase in C02 emissions. But there is, of
course, an increase in emissions compared with keeping the tree standing.
And there is little benefit in terms of energy security, as much of the wood
burned on an industrial scale is imported from overseas.
Indeed many environmental groups argue the push for burning wood will increase
"Biomass stations that rely on wood imports from abroad are a threat to the
world's forests and may even increase climate-changing emissions," says Paul
Steedman from Friends of the Earth.
But there are much more tangible, not doubt unintended, consequences to biomass
Since 2005, the price of the kind of wood used in the construction and wood
panel industries has gone up by more than 50% in the UK.
The reason, the wood industry says, could not be simpler - biomass subsidies
have increased demand for wood, pushing prices higher.
As Dr Peter Beele at the Furniture Industry Research Association says: "There is
no doubt the two are connected".
Alastair Kerr at the Wood Panel Industries Federation is even more unequivocal,
arguing that timber prices are significantly higher than five years ago despite
the economic downturn. "The only factor is biomass," he says.
And if the companies that make wood have to pay more for their raw materials,
it's not long before these additional costs are passed on to builders, furniture
makers and, ultimately, consumers.
The effects are already being felt.
"The increases in costs eroded our bottom line significantly, until the point
when, about 12 months ago, we were forced to pass them on to our customers,"
says Gavin Adkins at wood panel manufacturer Kronospan.
The customers of panel makers are furniture makers, and they too are feeling the
Julian Roebuck at Gresham Office Furniture says that recent increases in the
price of chipboard have been "incredible".
"In the past 12 months, we have had two increases of 6% and 9% which, in the
current economic climate, we have been unable to pass on to our customers," he
"This is having a serious effect on our business and the damage to the office
furniture sector will be untold."
Eventually, these additional costs on furniture makers will be passed on to
consumers, if they have not already.
Karl Morris at Norbord, one of the world's biggest wood panel makers, says UK
consumers will be looking at paying an additional £200 on a standard kitchen.
But these cost increases are just the beginning, according to the wood industry.
"It's not so much what's happening now as what's going to happen in the next
five years," says Mr Kerr.
He says under the current subsidy regime, a dedicated biomass power station gets
about £75 for each tonne of wood it burns. A co-firing station - one that burns
biomass alongside coal, for example - gets about £25-£50.
This gives power stations quite an advantage over more traditional buyers when
UK-harvested wood can cost £60 a tonne - although, of course, the subsidy is
designed to cover the cost of building or converting traditional stations, which
can run into many millions of pounds.
In fact, the subsidies have encouraged more and more power stations to look
at burning wood, not to mention a swathe of applications for new-build biomass
"Planning applications either submitted or granted are just the tip of the
iceberg," says Mr Kerr.
Demand for wood, he says, will rocket.
The total wood harvested from UK forests last year was 10 million tonnes, and
yet the projected demand will be between 50 and 80 million tonnes by 2030, says
The government has set an unofficial target that 10% of wood used for biomass
energy production should be sourced domestically, which means between five and
eight million tonnes in 20 years.
So either the UK needs to grow an awful lot of trees very fast to meet this
demand, which appears entirely unrealistic, or the price of wood will continue
The government says it will try and increase forest expansion, and suggests
imported wood can make up any shortfall in domestic production.
"We are taking action to increase the supply of wood from within the UK by using
more waste wood and bringing forests back into economic production," a spokesman
for the Department of Energy and Climate Change says.
"Operators of bioenergy plant will import wood for fuel too, and studies have
shown there is no shortage of sustainably-sourced biomass in the world."
That may be so, but it costs an awful lot more to buy wood from overseas, more
than double in most cases, so power stations will inevitably buy as much as they
can from domestic forests.
And as long as they do, the price of wholesale wood and furniture in the shops
is likely to keep rising.
The wood industry does not oppose biomass subsidies in principle, but wants a
system that doesn't push up demand for domestic wood to such an extent.
More importantly, "we don't want to burn things in the first instance. We want
to use them first, then burn them", Mr Kerr says.
Carbon emissions from the wood may ultimately be the same, but at least
something useful and valuable - to companies, consumers and the wider economy -
will have been created, and the unintended consequences not quite so severe.