Paris wants to slash its carbon dioxide emissions by using wood imported from the US for heating.
The move will see Paris’s urban heating company CPCU burning 140,000 tonnes of wood pellets annually in a new €75m euro (£58m) plant in Saint-Ouen, north of Paris, which will start operating in a few weeks. The decision has been deemed controversial by environmentalists due to the distance over which the wood will have to be transported.
CPCU, which provides heat and hot water to more than a quarter of Parisians, explained that it was cheaper to buy American pellets, as the local industry cannot deliver such high quantities. However, the authorities said that by the time the contract with the American supplier expires in 2020, local industry would be ready to take over the deliveries.
"We hope that by then the French wood industry will be ready to deliver, because we prefer to buy at home," Saint-Ouen Mayor William Delannoy said.
The new plant will use a 50-50 mix of wood and coal, which is expected to lead to annual greenhouse gas emission reductions of 300,000 tonnes.
"This is a good example of how the energy transition is put in place following the United Nations climate conference," said Celia Blauel, Paris deputy mayor for the environment.
CPCU, operating a 480km steam heat network in the city, is generating 40 per cent of its heat in energy-from-waste plants. The firm has also been increasing its use of gas for heat generation instead of coal.
According to Henri Balzan, director of gas group Engie, which co-owns CPCU, investment in urban heating networks was crucial for France, which currently covers most of its heating demands by electricity from its nuclear power plants. In this regard, Balzan suggested, the country lags considerably behind most northern and eastern European countries.
"We expect district heating networks in France will grow five-fold by 2030," he said.
Europe is a major market for wood pellets to replace coal in power plants, with British utility Drax one of the top importers. Drax says economies of scale justify the shipping distance, but environmentalists say burning pellets leads to deforestation.
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