Guest blog: The social cost of big biomass

The following is a guest post by Leslie Wallace. Leslie is secretary of Friends of the Earth Falkirk, and his background is mainly in waste reduction and recycling. He was the recycling co-ordinator at the Edinburgh International Book Festival from 2002 to 2006, and spent 16 months working on a Government scheme to alleviate fuel poverty and reduce carbon emmissions.

Wood Burner

I saw that Greener Leith is dealing with the proposed biomass plant in Leith. Another is proposed for Grangemouth near where I live. I am glad that the sanity of growing trees abroad for import to run a power station is being questioned. It’s a lunacy which just compounds the problems caused by our over consumption, the pillaging of third world resources and the removal of land from habitat protection and agriculture for a spurious use. It’s certainly not ‘green’ because trees are technically a renewable resource.

Thanks to my last job I got a further insight into the issue that might give another perspective on biomass. If wood from Scotland is used for these biomass plants it will deprive a great number of people in areas where there is no mains gas – such as Fort William – of a fuel source that would replace highly expensive electric, oil and bottled gas heating. Last year I spent a week working in Fort William on a scheme intended to reduce fuel poverty. It was badly needed there. Much of the housing stock is energy inefficient and the lack of gas central heating meant that fuel bills were exorbitant. It was not uncommon to visit homes where the occupants were wearing coats because they were afraid to put the heating at a higher setting.

On a positive note some were moving over to wood burning stoves, plenty of waste wood in rural areas after all, which they were finding a big improvement in terms of cost and comfort. The only loser was the electricity company. But of course if wood from rural Scotland goes to biomass burners in the central belt these opportunities will be lost or severely constrained. A socially beneficial change will be hampered, nothing will be done to reduce our general fuel use and energy consumption or for that matter lowering costs to the public and industry. But funnily enough it won’t dent the profits of the energy company. How convenient an environmental ‘solution’ that doesn’t require any form of energy conservation.

So wood from the hills could go to heating hot tubs in the central belt rather than the home of a low income family or pensioner in Fort William or many other areas. I know from my job that there is great scope for reducing energy use in Edinburgh through insulation measures, showing people how to use their heating controls properly and increasing the energy efficiency of appliances. So much better than a tree burner just to feed excessive and wasteful demand – think what could be done if the money meant for the biomass plants went on public education, extra insulation measures and better advice for industry and most of all stoves for people on low incomes. Of course there is more profit in supplying profligate demand than combating fuel poverty.

It’s people in rural Scotland who should be up in arms about the Forth Energy plans for biomass. Scottish Hydro are a partner in Forth Energy and they would have a lot to lose if homes in places like Fort William went over to wood stoves as it is the main supplier of electricity in that area by a large margin. Small scale renewables such as wood stoves are a genuinely social and environmental benefit in rural areas, mass incinerators certainly are not.

Do you think Leslie makes a valid point? What do you think?

Written by Ally Tibbitt

Ally Tibbitt is a member of Greener Leith. He looks after this website.


  • me

    I don't think Leslie does make a valid point. The article is mostly opinion and very short on facts.

    For example:

    "If wood from Scotland is used for these biomass plants it will deprive a great number of people in areas where there is no mains gas – such as Fort William – of a fuel source that would replace highly expensive electric, oil and bottled gas heating."

    Is this really a fact? Is there really such a shortage of wood in Scotland that feeding Scottish biomass plants would mean there is no wood left for people who use wood burners in their homes?I find that extremely hard to believe and would need to see some pretty convincing data before being prepared to change my mind.

    "So wood from the hills could go to heating hot tubs in the central belt rather than the home of a low income family or pensioner in Fort William or many other areas."

    This is misleading. It suggests we have to make a choice between heating hot tubs and helping pensioners, which is nonsense.

    "think what could be done if the money meant for the biomass plants went on public education, extra insulation measures and better advice for industry and most of all stoves for people on low incomes."

    The government and the energy companies are already spending a fortune on public education, extra insulation and advice for industry. To take money for biomass plants and add it into the mix would not make a tangible difference in those areas. Again, if you're going to try to make that argument, you should back it up with some convincing details and numbers, preferably from and independent and reputable source.

    I am a Leith resident and I'm currently unsure whether to be for or against this biomass plant. But I'm afraid this kind of opinionated waffle adds nothing to the debate. If anything, it puts me off adding my name to the "no" campaign.

  • Ally

    @me It is an opinionated piece. But actually it pretty much represents current Scottish Government policy which favours small scale, efficient biomass, off the gas grid.

    Leslie is right in that where biomass replaces oil, or coal for space heating, in homes off the gas grid, it is likely to have the most impact on fuel poverty and on carbon emissions. If the same wood is burnt and used to heat modern homes which would otherwise be heated by fairly low carbon, modern combi gas boilers, the relative carbon savings are lower.

    The amount of timber we have in the UK is finite, and there are industry worries that the subsidy large power companies get for burning biomass will distort UK timber/waste wood markets. Similar concerns over the effects of biomass subsidy on UK timber markets have even made it to BBC Radio4's "You and Your's" programme recently: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00gwwgp

  • cadfael

    @ me
    So ok, its short on facts and figures, its emotive, that does not alter the plain and imple fact that the filth ports proposals are nothing less than a cynical subsidy gathering scheme, designed to fleece the tax-payer for the benefit of the firm and its shareholders, and it most certainly is NOT green. The only thing green about it is the "greenwash" which is transparently hogwash!
    Simple facts:-
    1) It is not sustainable, it would burn more than could be grown over its design lifetime.
    2) There is the very real danger of importing insect and fungal pests which would cause MAJOR problems in Scotland's forests, destroying forest faster than it could be replaced. Species include the Timber Longhorn Beetle and the fungus Phytopthera ramorum, cause of sudden oak death which attacks other trees as well.
    3) There would be a major problem for Scoltand's timber manufacturing sector which relies on use of secondary products such as chippings, planings and sawdust.
    4) Not green, what would be the cost in terms of oil bringing wood chips from USA and Canada, let alone South America etc
    5) Further social impacts on native peoples where trees are planted on their land purely for biomass .. the same as the landgrabs caused by the oil palm industry.
    These are FACTS, simple, plain and easily researched.
    NOW DO YOU SEE!!!

  • Donald

    The Leith biomass project isn't well suited to Edinburgh but articles like this and Cadfael's post above make opposing voices look like uninformed loons.

    Does the author really think that sourcing Scottish wood for this plant would involve collection waste wood in rural areas? Have they not thought that perhaps planting a commercial forest (you now, the horrible pine mono-cultures) would be far more economic than traipsing around the country with a big poly bag picking up odds and ends?
    in fact harvested plantations produce vast amounts of waste wood (branches, roots etc) that are discarded by loggers only interested in the trunks and are mostly open to people to recover what they can.

  • http://www.enerzeapower.com/natural-gas-generator.php Gas Generator manufacturers

    Enerzea Power Solutions is leading manufacturers of Natural Gas generator. High quality Natural Gas generator manufacturers in bangalore by affordable price quote.Natural Gas Manufacturers focus on going for dynamic designs of these engines viable to produce power with a range of gases available in the nature. Even mixed fuel generators are gaining prominence because of their versatility. We focus on up gradation of engine designs with the growing demand for these generators