Why British biomass energy is a burning issue for Estonia
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Increased demand for biomass pellets in the UK means subsidy schemes will continue to help British biomass operators to burn cut wood in sustainable power plants. It drives felling rates in sensitive areas in Estonia. E&T, in collaboration with a team of European investigative journalists, explores where things have gone wrong.
As demand for renewable energy sources in the UK hits record highs, biomass faces increasing criticism from people who dispute that it can really be called ‘renewable’. Many find the idea of cutting and burning forest inadequate to justify the production of ‘renewable’ energy. Biofuelwatch, a non-profit activist group lobbying against biomass based in the UK and the US, commissioned a YouGov poll this summer which found that only one in four UK citizens thought electricity generated by burning wood from forests suits the formal definition of being genuinely renewable.
Scientists and experts worry that if biomass energy relies mainly on imports and whole trees in the form of wood pellets, this will harm the environment elsewhere and won't help the climate as green energy should. Duncan Brack, associate fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House, comments that the biomass industry only exists at the scale that it does because of subsidies and we are effectively paying to increase carbon emissions in the atmosphere – an absurd use of public money, he says. “What annoys me is that it’s treated as zero-carbon, which it clearly isn’t.”
The UK is hungry for biomass. Since 2008 wood pellets have contributed an increasing share of the country’s renewable energy mix and helped squeeze the amount of fossil fuel used for energy generation (above). That looks great on the CV. But more demand meant more imports of wood pellets. Estonia is a particularly close trading partner. The share of wood pellets that arrive from Estonia grew faster than the amount imported from EU countries as a whole (see below).
Ample incentive to increase Britain’s biomass industry lies in the renewable energy goals set by the national government. The UK subscribed to EU targets that dictate at least 32 per cent of energy must come from green energy sources by 2030. Brack explains that the 2020 target is less relevant now as the UK isn’t an EU member any longer and has its own policy framework through the Climate Change Act. It is the original 2009 Renewable Energy Directive - with individual member state targets for 2020 and 15 per cent of energy in the UK - that really drove investment in renewables, he says. Now, to meet targets, more than half of electricity generation will need to come from renewable sources.
In 2018 the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) called on the government to set the UK’s renewable electricity target at 50 per cent by 2030, but now it wants to go even further, to 65 per cent. The role of biomass was not being considered, and the recommendation on achieving this target focused only on offshore and onshore wind, solar and carbon capture and storage (CCS), an NIC spokesperson tells E&T.
The UK’s biomass strategy – is there one?
A BEIS spokesperson tells E&T that “biomass-fired [power] generation can deliver both firm and flexible low carbon power and so [it] can be a valuable part of a balanced energy portfolio”. But BEIS insists that the UK only supports biomass which complies with strict sustainability criteria and companies only receive a subsidy for compliant biomass. “Strict sustainability criteria the UK imposes on biomass imports take into account a range of social, economic, and environmental issues including protecting biodiversity, land use rights, sustainable harvesting, and regeneration rates”, BEIS says.
But how good is the UK’s oversight for sustainability in other countries really? Some experts argue that biomass imports could make it harder for the UK to achieve climate change goals. Biomass is generally understood as covering all organic material including material from plants, such as straw, crops or wood, and animals, such as poultry litter. But as capacity for using industrial and harvest residues and traditional fuelwood gets increasingly exhausted, more whole trees drop into the mix to fire the biomass furnaces.
Brack suspects that more wood is used because it’s cheaper to harvest and to collect and because it’s not contaminated. Residues and wastes from sawmills and forest harvesting are used extensively, but there are many other uses for sawmill residues, he says. “Forest residues can be expensive to collect, and may be contaminated, such as with bark and soil, so some whole trees are being used”.
Current policy frameworks in the UK fail to discriminate between whole trees and other biomass materials. Some feedstocks, like sawmill wastes that would otherwise be left to decay and release their carbon into the atmosphere, are probably fine to be used, but whole trees aren’t, Brack thinks. He published his findings in an in-depth report in 2017.
Growing trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their wood and the forest's soil. When they’re harvested and burnt for energy, all the stored carbon is released at once, and the carbon they would have absorbed and stored in the future is also lost. Even if the trees are replanted, it will take years or decades until the rate of carbon uptake matches what it would have been if the trees had been left to grow. Harvesting whole trees for energy “will in almost all circumstances increase net carbon emissions very substantially compared to using fossil fuels,” he says.
Academic experts are alarmed by the notion that growing pressure on renewable sources could boost biomass, which, in turn, may rely more on logging by pellet producers than that is cut for UK consumption. Around 800 scientists signed a letter to the EU parliament, cautioning against using deliberately harvested wood for burning and to restrict “eligible forest biomass to appropriately defined residues and wastes”.
If that fails it would boost carbon levels in the atmosphere, they say. One of its initial signatories was John Beddington, Professor at Oxford Martin School and a former chief scientific adviser to the UK government. In 2017, Beddington warned openly that relying on the cutting down and burning of trees as a replacement for the use of fossil fuels could backfire.
Who is benefiting from the biomass boom?
The amount of electricity generated from bioenergy (which includes both solid biomass and biogas) in the UK has tripled in a decade, from 12.26TWh in 2010 to 37.31TWh in 2019. A building spree of new and converted biomass plants across the country helped in the fight against fossil fuels.
Climate change activists warn of the so-called biomass loophole, as explained by Justin Catanoso, a professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Along with Denmark and Belgium, the UK enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to convert coal-fired power plants to biomass, most notably at the Drax site in North Yorkshire, described by its operators as the UK’s biggest renewable power generator. The ‘loophole’ arises, according to Catanoso, because United Nations carbon-accounting criteria treat biomass as carbon-neutral but when trees are cut to produce wood pellets it will take 50-100 years for regrowth to absorb the amount of carbon released when the pellets are burnt.
Drax is by far the biggest player in the UK biomass business. Its electricity plant in North Yorkshire has a capacity of 2.6GW solely for biomass energy generation and it consumes around 7 million tonnes of wood pellets a year in its four dedicated units. In 2019 Drax Group announced plans to expand its own capacity for pellet production in the USA, which then stood at 1.5 million tonnes a year. The new aim is to self-supply 5 million tonnes a year by 2027.
A powerful lobbyist in the biomass energy sector, Drax relies heavily on subsidies for renewables, but these may end quite soon. Activists at BioFuelWatch point out that long-term renewable electricity subsidies for biomass – £789.5m in 2019 alone – have helped the business but subsidy schemes for Drax and Lynemouth, another energy company, will both end by 2027.
After that, Drax plans to fit carbon capture and storage (CCS) kit and may hope for government subsidies for Bioenergy with CCS (BECCS). It is running a CCS pilot now. A consultancy study for the government energy department BEIS estimates that one of the units could be converted to BECCS before 2030, with possibly more coming later. But drawbacks, like models’ assumptions that biomass for energy is inherently carbon-neutral, may still prevail.
The 2027 deadline doesn’t apply to all UK biomass companies. MGT Teesside has a 15-year contract. It’s a combined heat and power (CHP) plant, unlike Drax and Lynemouth, says Brack. It’s being subsidised for longer. But building of MGT Teesside hasn't yet finished, which leaves some room for uncertainty.
Biomass for power and heat is subsidised on the assumption that CO2 emissions from combustion can be ignored, because the carbon burned is part of a natural forest cycle of growth and regrowth. But that’s wrong, Brack explains.
“Forests would grow anyway. If you cut them down and burn them for energy, you stop them absorbing carbon in the future. They also release all their stored carbon into the atmosphere. Even if the trees are re-planted, they won’t return to the rate of carbon uptake they were at before harvesting for years or decades,” he says.
Drax has stated that it wants to reduce its cost of biomass to a level that is economic without subsidy by 2027. The company invests healthy sums in lobbying and our analysis finds that Drax Group plc spent between €50,000 and €100,000 in 2019, according to data by lobbyfacts.
It is true that much of Estonia’s wood pellets go to other EU countries and only a small part goes directly to the UK. Activists point out that Drax imports much more from outside the European Union. The south of the US lost 43,000 hectares of forests in 2018 alone and corresponds to Drax’s appetite for pellets from overseas. It’s more than the 30,000 hectares of trees the UK plans to plant by 2025.
The European Commission told E&T that it is indeed aware of the situation in Estonia. It is looking into it very closely, it says, stating a 2020 JRC report. "We are in touch with the Estonian authorities. Sustainable forest management is a priority for the EU and key to our ecological agenda to halt biodiversity loss and to tackle climate change". The Commission is currently working on updated guidance on EU biomass sustainability criteria, which will be adopted in "early 2021", it says. Those new criteria will force bioenergy producers to demonstrate that they source forest biomass only from countries that apply legislation avoiding illegal logging and ensuring the regeneration of harvested areas, protection of soil quality and biodiversity during harvesting operations, as well as to ensure that carbon stocks and sinks levels in the forest are maintained or strengthened over the long term, the spokesperson said.
Imports from Estonia
More pellets are being produced for export by Latvia and Estonia. In 2019 the two countries produced and exported 3.1 million tonnes of wood pellets, the equivalent of 345,000 truckloads of cut roundwood or 944 truckloads a day on average, according to a new 2020 report from the Estonian Fund for Nature (ELF) called 'Hidden inside a wood pellet'. The report claims to have found a correlation between annual logging volumes in the country and biomass demand.
In Estonia, Drax found a reliable source for biomass and pellets, many made from roundwood. According to Drax’s 2018 biomass pellet feedstock data, 128,437 tonnes of wood from Estonia came from thinning – the process of removing smaller, weaker and poorer quality trees to ensure growth of better trees (it’s second highest after the US) - and another 42,590 tonnes from low grade roundwood. The most recent figures, for 2019, show these numbers had fallen to 61,621 tonnes and 14,210 tonnes respectively, with a further amount of 55,267 tonnes coming from Estonian sawmill residues. Estonia supplied just 1.9% of the wood pellets Drax used in 2019.
While the bulk of Britain’s wood-pellet imports come from the US and Canada, Estonia has become an established trading partner to feed the growing demand in the UK.
Data reveals that the UK did little to boost biomass production domestically. While imports accelerated, local production of pellets remained largely stable. Estonia’s pellet trade to the UK doubled between 2016 and 2019, BEIS data suggests. UK domestic pellet production between 2010 and 2019 only climbed by 7 per cent, according to data by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
More energy from biomass can be good, but not if it relies mainly on imports, Giulio Volpi, policy officer at the European Commission (EC) energy directorate, explains. Contributions of bioenergy towards net greenhouse gas emissions cuts in 2030 are generally beneficial, he says, but problematic when the bulk of the biomass comes from abroad. Duncan Brack disagrees and says it’s not about the origin per se. Instead, “the difference is in the type of feedstock and not in where it comes from”.
The effects of growing biomass exports on logging
The rise in Estonia’s pellet exports to the UK and other EU countries corresponds to rising forest clearing in Estonia’s EU Natura 2000 protected areas (see chart).
EU 2000 Natura zones are areas to protect rare and protected species. Designated under the Nature Directives that include the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives, Article 6 dictates that member states like Estonia take measures to maintain and restore habitats and avoid anything that could disturb species and result in deterioration of their habitats, according to the European Environmental Agency.
The Estonian Private Forest Union, which represents forestry owners, points out that logging is sometimes allowed in EU Natura 2000 zones. The rules are strictest for areas designated as special protection areas but forest management by regeneration felling is allowed in limited management zones, under certain conditions.
Drax bought 294,000 tonnes of wood pellets from a firm called Graanul Invest in 2018 and 135,018 tonnes in 2019. The private Estonian firm is one of the largest pellet manufacturers in the world and the biggest in Europe. It is run by one of the richest people in Estonia, Graanul Invest’s owner and CEO, Raul Kirjanen. Drax made Graanul its main partner and long-term pellet supplier for Estonia.
A 2020 Drax report by Indufor, a bio solutions consultant, found that between 2014 and 2018, wood pellets from Estonia accounted for up to 11 per cent of Drax’s woody biomass imports to the UK – though that is the upper bound - and for almost all of those years it was below 5 per cent, Duncan Brack adds. Indeed, a proportion of that came form sawmill residues and Drax's latest annual report shows only 1.9% of its 2019 pellet supply came from Estonia.
Still, Graanul Invest is Drax’s biggest Estonian partner, and 69 per cent of the firm’s pellet production feedstock comes from roundwood thinning in Estonia.
Drax has defended its position. "Our world-leading sustainable biomass sourcing policy goes beyond existing regulations and is led by science, best practice and transparency. The pellets we use from Estonia are sustainably sourced from working forests which grow back and stay as forests – and are certified as such by the Sustainable Biomass Program," said a Drax spokesperson. “A significant proportion of the pellets from Estonia that Drax used in 2019 were produced using sawmill residues, such as sawdust, which would otherwise be wasted. Forestry and climate experts say that using by-products from forest industry processes is typically found to achieve the best carbon outcomes in the short term.”
EU protected forest cleared
In 2017, a forest area spanning around 3 hectares or around 4 UK football pitches disappeared. Owned by Graanul Invest, it’s located in Estonia’s Haanja Nature Reserve, around 15km north of the Latvian border, and in an EU protected zone. The EC thinks it protects the nature park with its Natura 2000 areas, but is that the case?
At the beginning of 2015, the Estonian government decided to allow clear-cutting of trees in the Haanja Nature Park as demand for wood in Western Europe soared.
The logging in this particular part around Haanja forest is only part of the evidence that felling spiralled within EU 2000 protected areas. It could mean greater uncertainty for rare species like the Braun’s holly fern, which is only found in the Haanja nature park, or the Ligularia sibirica. They are not as protected as the EC may have hoped.
Graanul Invest owns dozens of properties on forest land protected under EU natural regulation. In the Haanja zone alone, 59 of its forest lands sit on EU protected areas, covering roughly 600 hectares. According to Global Forest Watch data, since 2016, Haanja Nature Park lost 112ha on Graanul Invest-owned property, a significant increase compared with 19.6ha between 2010 and 2015.
The findings speak volumes for how much influence Graanul has on inflicting change on sensitive forest areas. In the past 10 years, 16 per cent of Estonia’s Natura forest habitats were issued with felling permits. E&T and its partners asked Graanul Invest CEO Raul Kirjanen about EU protected areas. Kirjanen explains that Estonia has one of the strictest forest laws in Europe: “We have over 14 per cent of strictly protected forests, with which we are also at the forefront in Europe. By its nature, the forest is not a static community but a dynamic community”, he says.
Asked about clear-cutting on EU Natura sites, which is legal but can make local communities nervous, Kirjanen explains that nowadays Estonia’s forests are largely the result of forest management. “If we want our forests to remain, they must be managed. Many protected areas in national parks are semi-natural communities, and without maintenance, conservation values often disappear.
“If we do not manage them, what will happen today in many strictly protected areas - forests will be ageing and a maze of dead trees that neither people nor animals will want to walk in. Forest management is the most important part of nature protection,” he says.
What Kirjanen refers to is what the industry calls timber hierarchy, says Siim Kuresoo from Estonian Fund for Nature. He explains that the industry justifies cutting wood for pellets with only felling trees of ‘low-quality’. He says the industry’s economic view is that as long as the hierarchy isn’t distorted – meaning for example that high-quality wood meant for logs and plywood, is cut for wood pellets – roundwood logging is fine.
The industry argues that low-ranking roundwood for pellets, energy and firewood would need to be cut anyway, so surging demand from pellet customers abroad has no influence on how forest is cut, but Kuresoo has his doubts.
The hierarchy ignores ecological quality, Kuresoo says. He and other activists believe there is another good use of these low-quality trees: “They can store carbon in the forest ecosystem that provides habitats for species. We challenged the industry’s hierarchy notion by arguing that loggers fail to consider overall stimulus that determines a higher price for this kind of [bottom ranking] wood, which adds to the logging”. Biofuelwatch adds that “low value wood” and “forestry residues” widely include wood from whole trees and that both of those terms are based on economic considerations, ignoring ecological, climate or cultural values. The group also point at Drax, which since 2015 has burned more wood than the UK produces every year.
The EU Commission told E&T in an email that the monoculture plantations inherited from the Soviet times have been poorly managed or even abandoned and wood is therefore "of poor quality, as well as soils and the condition of these plantations from the biodiversity point of view".
In an email to E&T, Graanul Invest told us that it has accepted material from Natura 2000 areas and “made sure the harvest was carried out according to the environmental inspectorate requirements and within the restrictions/requirements of the conservation value”.
Loss of forest cover in all of Estonia’s Natura areas has jumped dramatically (see chart) but for areas owned by Graanul Invest’s holdings which overlap with EU Natura areas, forest cover loss increased even faster: 193 per cent increase of forest loss between 2016 to 2019 and 2010 to 2015 - forest loss across all Estonian Natura areas increased only 96 per cent.
The firm says that Graanul Invest does not own any forests directly and that they are owned by its sister companies “that are very independent”.
“In the Natura 2000 areas forest management is carried out on the basis of strict supervision of Estonian Environmental Agency and we follow their requirements to the letter. Sometimes it also means clearcutting which we then also perform,” Kirjanen assures us.
Kirjanen disagrees with the notion that Estonia’s suffers heightened forest loss. He told E&T that Estonia’s forest cover has not declined but actually “continuously increased between 2010 and 2018 and with the total forest growing stock increasing for the last two decades, and the carbon stock per hectare has grown”. 2018 figures on forest cover issued by Estonia’s Ministry of the Environment state that forest land area did increase, yet only marginally from 2,309,500ha to 2,330,800ha between 2015 and 2018.
Satellite data on tree cover loss – ignoring tree cover gain - by Global Forest Watch and the University of Maryland, Google, USGS, and Nasa, tell a different story. On average the country’s forests lost 28,412ha per annum between 2011 and 2018. That’s 1.6 times the annual rate observed between 2001 and 2010 (assuming a tree-cover threshold of 30 per cent). The country as a whole lost around 446kha of tree cover –equivalent to a 17 per cent decrease in tree cover since 2000 - between 2001 and 2019. Most of the loss came after 2015. The period between 2015 and 2019 accounted for four-fifths of this loss.
Global Forest Watch points out on its website that there is an error rate for tree cover loss data it provides that can span “20 per cent or even more”. E&T cross-checked sample areas with high resolution satellite data by Google and with on-site observations and it suggests that findings for Estonia point in the right direction.
Change in domestic regulation is partly responsible for an increase in forest cover loss. For instance, the government passed a law that permits cutting trees earlier. Surrendering EU protected forest to the commercial sector added more to it.
According to the statement to E&T, the information the European Commission has about Estonian forests is that the country's very skewed age class distribution of Soviet-era plantations results in a modelled expectation of harvesting peak, and a corresponding decrease in carbon sink. "There is no EU legislation on tree planting today, nor any guidance", it says. It is working on guidelines on tree planting and forest management according to ecological principles, which will be published in 2021.
In Estonia, subsidies may have set the wrong incentives. Graanul Invest benefited a great deal from EU subsidy schemes and cashed in €11m from a total of €48m of subsidies the Estonian government gave out to biomass producers last year. When land is owned in protected areas, landowners are compensated more generously, mainly for the loss they suffer in restrictions – such as that landowners are only permitted to clear areas of less than 2ha at one time (though it remains unclear how to police it and this investigation found clearing on Graanul Invest property that may have exceeded this limit). For 2020, one area by Valga Puu, a subsidiary of Graanul Invest, received EU subsidies worth €60,000 for owning land protected under Natura 2000, according to research by investigative journalists from the Money to Burn cross-border investigation.
The European Commission told E&T that the European Union does not subsidise bioenergy production and that member States are responsible for adopting the needed national measures, including support schemes, to achieve their national renewable energy targets and contributions to the EU overall target.
Sustainability of forests may be another issue. In a presentation at the beginning of 2020, Graanul’s CEO reminded the audience that the company “would plant quite a lot of trees. At the end of the day that would be necessary”. But such pledges may not always be fruitful. One property owned by Graanul was cleared six years ago. Satellite images from 2020 show a barren land (see below).
Graanul Invest seems increasingly irritated by criticism from activists and researchers. Siim Kuresoo is worried about having public state funding support cut for his NGO, the Estonian Fund for Nature, which lobbies against overzealous logging in the country. Kirjanen, who has great influence in both the sector and politics, was quoted in a public statement in November questioning whether NGOs should receive state support at all. A year earlier, he was quoted saying that “the state should not carry out its environmental policy through non-profit organisations”.
Despite the findings on forest loss in sensitive areas and the connection to the UK’s biomass industry, there is plenty of hope for the next decade, activist Kuresoo points out. He thinks the EC is slowly waking up and starting to understand “the intensity and brutality of logging in certain places affecting Estonians”. Last July, the EC adopted a new framework of actions to protect and restore forests, stating the intention to “halt deforestation and forest degradation to fight climate change”. This took some time. Estonians have been protesting against logging since 2016, Martin Luiga, at Estonian Forest Aid explains.
Several factors could make Britain’s biomass future more uncertain. Domestic policy will be a determining factor. Will the UK stick to its net zero target under the Climate Change Act? A BEIS spokesperson told E&T that a diverse mix of low-carbon generation technologies will have a role to play in decarbonising the power sector as part of the Government’s Ten Point Plan and the delivery of net zero emissions by 2050.
Also, the changes that arrive with Brexit may play a role. BEIS said it 2018 that would look carefully at the EU’s proposed renewable targets. Another question is whether biomass companies will survive the shock of being cut off from state support. Some commentators, including Brack, suggest they will respond by lobbying for state support for BECCS.
But what if that doesn’t work? All these questions remain largely unanswered. For Graanul’s CEO Kirjanen, it’s beyond doubt that biomass plays an important role in the transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a sustainable one in the near future. “Biomass is essential in the transition towards a bio-based circular economy”, he says. But at what price, wonders Siim Kuresoo at the Estonian Fund for Nature. He worries that “if there is no pressure on [British] energy companies or the government, nothing will substantially change”.
Graanul Invest sent the following in response to our article: "In Estonia, forests are managed in buffer zones a.k.a limited management zones adjacent to the Natura 2000 protected sites, where the economic activities are allowed but limited in order to not compromise the established conservation values. Estonian Ministry of Environment has stated that those limited management areas do not have habitat’s directive habitats and the cutting has been necessary to either boost vitality or maintain the conservation value of each specific site (often semi natural). Management of such forests is thus important to preserve their health and as any other forest company also Graanul Invest forest companies manage such forests. In 2020 Graanul Invest companies have carried out forest operations (planting, plant maintenance etc.) in Haanja Natural Park, that included harvesting operations in less than 20 ha of Haanja National Park buffer zones. Good quality material from such operations went to sawmills and plywood factories and the lower quality wood and tops and branches from that area ended up in our pellet production. All material was sourced through legal, conditional and necessary management activities".
E&T’s international partners for this investigation:
Belgium • Catherine Joie • Estonia • Piret Reiljan • Germany • Paul Toetzke • the Netherlands • Sophie Blok and Ties Gijzel at Argos • Spain • Silvia Nortes • United Kingdom • Hazel Sheffield; Estonia • Liis Treimann [Äripäev] • Teet Konksi [ERR] • Uku-Kristjan Küttis [AKU] • Jaan Sarapuu [AKU] • Nele Aunap • Latvia • Anita Brauna [Latvian Radio] • Zane Mace [Latvian Radio] • the Netherlands • Sanne van der Peijl [Argos] • Fleur Kronenberg [VPRO] • Daphné Dupont-Nivet [Investico] • Emiel Woutersen [Investico] • Portugal • Carla Tomás [Expresso].
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