It's not often that a magazine makes news for what's not in it, but the winter 2010 issue of Green Building has set tongues wagging in the normally polite debating halls of the AECB, the UK's main green building movement. And at the heart of it all is our old friend biomass.
Here's the story in a nutshell. AECB founder and magazine editor Keith Hall is a big fan of biomass. He lives on a smallholding in Wales and is self-sufficient in fuel, having access to his own timber. In September, two AECB stalwarts, Alan Clarke and Board member Nick Grant (aka the PassivHaus gang) published a "discussion paper" — whatever that is — on AECB headed notepaper called Biomass - A Burning Issue. It gently but firmly put the boot into the pro-biomass argument, pointing out that burning timber actually releases far more CO2 than burning the equivalent amount of gas. The paper argued that it would be better for the environment to encourage the growth of new timber, and its use as a carbon store (in buildings, furniture, whatever): anything in fact, except burning it. And to incentivise the burning of biomass — which is what the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is setting out to do — is just plain nuts.
This was too much for Keith Hall. He wrote on the Green Building forum (which he moderates): I'm appalled that the AECB has chosen to publish this document without a wide membership review. It is a manifesto for heat pumps and fossil fuel use. Clearly they seem to think there is no place in their passivhaus doctrine for woodburning. Well that’s clear enough.
Then Keith uses his clout as editor of Green Building to put together a “Biomass Issue” which manages to all but completely ignore the Clarke & Grant paper. It's not quite been airbrushed out — it's referred to in a feature on the online forum debate — but the central argument made by Clarke & Grant is just nowhere to be seen. It’s like someone has let off a real stinker in a crowded lift and everyone is just too polite to mention it.
But the biomass debate is not going to die down just because Hall and a seemingly large cohort of AECB members don't like it happening. With the final announcement on the RHI expected shortly, the rights and wrongs of burning timber for heating are occupying the corridors of power in Westminster. It may seem all just a little obscure to ordinary mortals, but the decisions made in the coming months will set the tone for a very long time. My worry is that the agenda is being largely driven by vested interests — forestry providers, biomass plant manufacturers, power producers who want subsidies — and that the cold, hard logic of what should be done about climate change has somehow been sidelined.
I’m not exactly an objective observer here. I’ve made it plain already that I broadly agree with the rebel paper. A little wood burning here and there isn’t a problem but switching to biomass burning on an industrial scale (which is what this is all about) is illogical and counter productive because there will never be enough timber to supply more than a tiny proportion of our heating needs and the idea that it can be seen as a little closed loop all on its tod is unrealistic.
Or to put it another way, it’s fine to live a self-sufficient back-woodsy lifestyle and to use near-free biomass to heat your smallholding, but it doesn’t begin to address the global problems we are having with our carbon burning habits. If anything should be subsidised, it should be using timber in buildings, a perfect working example of carbon capture and storage. Burning it is just undoing all the good work.
Where this leaves the AECB is something which will have to be worked out next year. But the current split is — dare I say it — totally unsustainable.