Firewood: the premodern solution to Britain’s energy crisis

Firewood: the premodern solution to Britain’s energy crisis

Biomass is already our greatest source of renewable energy


Winter is coming, and it’s going to be tough. With energy prices rocketing, affluent Western European countries like Germany and Belgium are beginning to echo previously crisis-struck nations like Greece and Lebanon as ordinary people prepare to return to heating their homes with firewood, just to keep warm. In Germany, Google searches for firewood have gone through the roof as anxious consumers stock up for winter; and sales of woodburning stoves have been so robust that Germany’s undergoing a shortage, as Europe’s industrial powerhouse returns to pre-industrial survival methods.

But mankind’s oldest means of keeping warm isn’t just for ordinary householders. Most people don’t realise that a decent chunk of Britain’s electricity — around 6.5% last quarter — comes from burning biomass, mostly wood, centred on the vast Drax power station. In fact, despite all the attention given to wind and wave power, biomass is Britain’s greatest source of renewable energy at around 40% of the total, the same percentage as in the EU where biomass heats 50 million homes. As the president of the World Bionergy Association, Christian Rakos notes, wood-dominated biomass already makes “a greater contribution to Europe’s renewable energy goals than all the continent’s wind and solar output combined”.

Indeed, as a recent Chatham House paper notes, the UK is the world’s biggest single consumer of wood for energy generation: “in 2018 [Britain] consumed an estimated 8.3 million tonnes, representing 21 per cent of all the wood pellets produced worldwide”. It may not be great for curbing carbon emissions, despite its technical status as a renewable resource, but energy derived from wood is at least renewable, reliable and relatively secure from dependence on a fluctuating global energy market. But only up to a point. Around 80% of the wood burned at Drax is imported from America. As Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Kwasi Kwarteng recently cautioned,“There’s no point getting it from Louisiana — that isn’t sustainable … transporting these wood pellets halfway across the world — that doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”

He’s right. Wood biomass is a vital part of Britain’s energy mix until the proposed new nuclear power stations come onstream, but the market for wood pellets isn’t immune to the rising energy prices Putin’s war on Ukraine has wrought. Many of Western Europe’s power stations were dependent on compressed wood pellets imported from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, now cut off by the war and sanctions. As a result, the price of American wood pellets is already climbing, even leaving aside the undesirability, for the climate, of importing from the other side of the world a resource that literally grows on trees.

For the medium term, Britain should secure its own domestic supply of wood for energy generation, so here’s my modest proposal: cut down our conifer plantations and burn them. As environmentalists have complained for years, the Forestry Commission and other large landowners have blanketed Britain’s precious uplands and heathlands with non-native conifers like Sitka spruce for generations, with a devastating effect on our native wildlife. As the Woodland Trust notes, “approximately 40% (227,000ha) of the remaining ancient woodland in the UK has been cleared and replanted with dense non-native plantations”. In his excellent book Rebirding, the conservationist Benedict Macdonald observed plaintively that conifer plantations make up 51% of Britain’s woodland, “alien crops” which “come with no useful insect package, and do not ‘compute’ for Britain’s native wildlife”. As he notes, “There is, in truth, no larger single crop for wildlife prevention in our country.” His solution, “fell the conifers and regrow native trees in our national forests,” because “to get our precious woodlands back… we need to ask for the existing trees to be cut down.”

On the face of it, it seems an elegant solution: we already burn wood in vast quantities for energy, but we import almost all of it from the US. At the same time, we’re experiencing a collapse in our native wildlife as our precious natural habitats are blanketed in non-native trees for which no commercial or ecological logic exists. If we fell our alien conifers and burn them, replacing them with either native broadleaf woodland or other threatened habitats like peat bogs or heathland, we can keep the lights on and bring back Britain’s nature, surely a win-win solution. Sometimes a crisis really can be an opportunity: forget fracking, it’s time to get Britain logging.

Firewood: the premodern solution to Britain’s energy crisis