Frequently Asked Questions
Does burning biomass emit more harmful greenhouse gases than coal?
No, biomass is part of a closed cycle involving the atmosphere and biosphere. Trees take carbon from the atmosphere when they are growing and release it again when they decay in the forest or are burned. When fossil fuels are burned, carbon is released that has been stored for millions of years, which increases carbon in the atmosphere. This carbon would have continued to have been stored if it was not burned. Instead, the burning of fossil fuels adds to a net increase in the amount of carbon in the cycle, placing pressure on the Greenhouse effect.
If a tree burns in seconds but a replacement tree takes years to re-grow to the same size, is there a ‘carbon debt’ until the new tree has reached the size of the tree it replaced?
An assessment of the carbon stock of a forest must include the whole forest and not just a single tree. As trees are harvested in one area of a managed forest, there will be several other areas with new trees growing. The carbon stock therefore needs to look at the region in question and assess whether there are as many trees absorbing carbon than is lost through the harvest of trees, so that there is no net loss of carbon. Sometimes the “Growth to Removal” ratio is used to assess the balance of harvest versus new growth. If the ratio is equal or greater than one, then there will be more trees absorbing carbon than carbon lost through the harvest of trees. Healthy demand for wood stimulates supply and ensures forests remain as forests. That is why forest cover in the U.S. is growing year on year and has been growing for each of the last 50 years. Highland has to follow stringent sustainability criteria that ensures our supply of pellets does not lead to a net increase in carbon levels.
Does Highland produce pellets from whole trees?
Highland only uses residual parts of trees (branches, tops and sawdust) or trees that have no commercial value because they are cut down to thin the forest and encourage growth, but are too small to be sold into any other market (“thinnings”). Highland might use whole trees if they are diseased or damaged and would otherwise be burnt on site, because they could not be used in other markets. It makes no commercial sense to use good quality mature whole trees for biomass since the mature tree has substantially more value being made into saw logs or furniture – we simply cannot afford to use whole trees to make pellets, because the wood is too expensive. The forest owners will maximize their value by selling the best wood into the highest value markets. Biomass provides a valuable additional source of revenue to forest owners by providing a market for wood fiber that would otherwise be non-merchantable. This helps forests stay commercially viable as forests, where many managed forests are under threat of being developed into other land uses because of the global collapse in the demand for paper caused by technical innovation.
Will industries that use wood be competed out of the market, including the furniture and construction industries where the carbon in the wood continues to be stored in the end product?
Forest owners typically supply a range of markets including sawmilling, panel board, pulp & paper, energy and heat; therefore, wood for energy is just one use amongst many. The forest owners will sell the best wood to the highest value markets such as saw logs. Large diameter logs from the trees’ lower trunks are usually the most valuable part of a tree. It is typically sawn and used in construction, joinery and furniture-making. Biomass often uses the leftover fiber that is low value, because it has no alternative market. It is often the case that a new pellet facility will locate in an area where there was once a paper factory but has since closed due to the dramatic decline in the demand for paper in recent years due to advances in technology (the iPad and kindle have reduced the demand for newspaper and books). Pellet facilities therefore help to replace old industries and provide new value into forests, enabling them to remain commercially viable and preserve local employment.
Is the production of biomass tightly regulated?
Yes, Highland is independently audited against a stringent sustainability policy which covers a range of issues including protection of biodiversity, ensuring no net carbon release from forests and an independently verifiable audit of greenhouse gas emissions throughout the supply chain. At the federal level in the U.S., forestry is regulated by the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Coastal Zone Management Act and the Lacey Act. At the state level, it is regulated by a range of water quality management regimes, established industry best practices, wetlands protections and zoning and landscaping ordinances.
How can it possibly make sense to ship wood pellets up to 3,800 miles to generate electricity when there are other alternatives available?
The economies of scale are a big advantage as we are able to ship our biomass in vessels as large as 50,000 tonnes capacity. We measure the carbon footprint of every step in the supply chain so we know exactly how much carbon is emitted during harvest, processing and transport. Even when this entire life cycle is taken into account, savings relative to coal are more than 80%. Wind power cannot be relied upon to respond to changes in demand when needed. Other renewables are important, but on their own they cannot meet our electricity needs.
Does the biomass industry contribute to deforestation around the world?
No, biomass provides an additional market for wood fiber that is otherwise uncommercial. This additional demand creates new value to the forest and helps to further stimulate investment in sustainable forests. In fact, wood thinnings are created as a consequence of good forestry management aimed at stimulating forest growth and development, thus maximizing carbon reduction.
Why do we need biomass if other forms of renewable energy provide zero carbon?
Biomass power stations are available when needed, are not intermittent and are reliable (do not have forecast error as is the case for estimating the future delivery of wind). Biomass is therefore an alternative to dispatchable fossil fuelled energy, which wind and solar are unable to replace. Standby sources necessary to support wind energy deficits are generally provided by fossil fuelled peaking stations which require higher capacity payments to keep them commercially viable during the year to cover periods when they are not operating. A greater proportion of biomass generation would reduce the need for capacity payments and therefore reduce the overall cost of electricity.
Wind and solar energy provide free fuel from the wind and sun whereas biomass generators have to pay for pellets to be shipped from overseas. Is biomass uneconomic compared to these “free” renewable energy sources?
The cost of fuel is just one consideration when comparing the cost of alternative renewable fuels. It is also important to compare the capital cost of building and installing the generation. Offshore wind turbines are expensive to install (around €4m/MW installed) whereas conversion of an old existing coal station already has the majority of the assets and grid connections in place. There is also the consideration of the need for additional transmission lines to connect the offshore wind to the network on land, as well as additional cost of reserve power to keep the system stable while the wind is not blowing or variable.
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