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The Guardian: Burning wood for power can be low carbon, UK government finds



Burning wood to produce electricity can produce lower carbon emissions than other fuels, but only under tightly controlled conditions, a report for the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change has found.

The report, due to be published on Thursday, is unlikely to result in any new restrictions on the burning of biomass in power stations or in homes for heating, but will fuel debate over how the technology can be used in the future.

Biomass - which includes wood, other plants and waste products such as straw - has been used as an alternative to burning coal to produce energy, but carries with it potential problems, for instance if the wood used to fuel the power plants is taken from forests that would otherwise act as a long-term store for carbon.

If the wood is taken from fast-growing forests that are regularly replenished, this is less of a problem because the trees take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow, making the fuel carbon-neutral over the lifetime of the plants.

Problems arise when too much wood is taken, or taken from older forests, which can take centuries to replace, and can result in the destruction of species that live in these habitats.

The Guardian understands that the report, prepared by the Decc's outgoing chief scientific adviser, David Mackay, does not propose curtailing the use of biomass, but lays out scenarios in which the use of biomass is either beneficial, in terms of carbon emissions, or problematic.

Decc did not respond to requests for comment.

Drax, which operates the UK’s biggest coal-fired power station and which is converting some of its boilers to biomass by using wood imported from the US, said the report showed that biomass could be effective in lowering emissions.

“Biomass can be a good form of renewable energy,” said Dorothy Thompson, chief executive. “We have had strict sustainability criteria in place since 2008 that ensures we deliver from responsible sources.”

"Anyone using biomass in accordance with the guidelines set out by the UK government would be lower-carbon than other fuels, this report shows," said a spokeswoman for the Renewable Energy Association. "This would result in significant carbon savings and lower greenhouse gas emissions for the UK. This is a good approach."