26 Dec 2010

Biomass splits the AECB

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.


  1. I stopped using the Green Building Forum because of Keith Hall's tactics regarding heat pumps. He started marking all posts which were pro-heat pump in a way which meant that they didn't show as new posts - the post was still there but for practical purposes it might as well have not been. The policy was not widely advertised.

    This was quite a while ago so I don't know if it's still happening but that's irrelevant - you don't want to spend time contributing to a discussion if what you say will, if effect, be censored to slant the apparent outcome.

    I'm now mostly use the Navitron forum. It has house rules about not pushing their competitors which can occasionally be irksome but is quite clear for all to see so doesn't give any false appearance. One of the moderators there is also heavily anti-heat pump but does not, as far as I can see, abuse his authority to distort the discussion.

  2. Faced similar situation, as they are censoring what people are saying just not to show there is some oposition to their policies...

  3. First I'd like to ask what do you consider to be feasible alternatives to burning wood in a "back-woodsy lifestyle" setting?

    Second I would like to offer an anecdote with the intention of maybe reframing/requestioning what the "global problem" is. I am far from an expert on any scale (local or global):

    I spent most of my adult life living in Israel (recently moved to Romania where we are working to create a sustainable/ecological home). Israel is generally unprepared for winters since the climate presents heat & moisture challenges most of the year. When winter does hit Israel (which means a day or two of rain - nothing even close to a European scale of winter) infrastructures overflow and collapse. Most cities suffer from things like severe flooding.

    But ... I spent the last chapter of my life in Israel living in the rural north where the rain is usually much heavier then in the densely populated cities ... and there, in the rural setting there were no floods. The water seems to get greedily swallowed by the earth.

    I was contemplating this and one day a question appeared "What if the problem is the city and not the rain or sewers? What if the problem is not even the city but the city-lifestyle?"

    What if a "solution" is somewhere between a "self-sufficient back-woodsy lifestyle" and the growing yet in (oh so) many ways broken city/industrialized lifestyle?

    The primary differences between the two are not how heat is generated or how much carbon is emitted but rather of values - core life values - which of course reflect (amongst other things) in how we relate to the natural world around us. Moving towards a self-sufficient living is much more a change in values then it is a change in location. You can't get movers to move your values - that's completely your work to do.

    It seems to me that carbom emissions are a symptom of a much deeper problem that sadly, seems to be lost within an eco/green indulgent hype of our times.

  4. This is a simple 'split' between the 'Low Carbon, Climate Change camp' and the Renewable and Sustainable camp' Clearly there is some overlap between these approaches but some important differences too. It turns out that the 'Green Building World' is as bad at dealing with differences as most other parts of society.

    There are interesting discussions to be had but, it doesn't do to confuse a particular set of beliefs, arguments or approaches with what the government does. Government decisions are essentially driven by concerns about power, wealth and security (their own mostly). Having made their decision, they then select the justification that suits best.

    There might be some environmental benefits from FITs and Carbon Trading, though peronally I doubt it, but the reason this gets done is down to cold calculation of political, and sometimes personal, self-interest. Those guys couldn't give a XXXX for anything else....

    I doubt that the bio-mass debate will be any different.

  5. I installed a woodburner last year and i have access to free offcuts from a joinery business. But I,m flabbergasted as to just how much wood we are using and the stove is only providing space heating. The idea that wood/biomass can may a dent in the energy requirements of the uk as a whole is nonsense.

  6. Most technologies work very well in certain niches. Away from those niches they are progressively less useful and efficient. It depends, obviously, on the circumstances prevailing. The number of people who will be fortunate enough to have the ideal circumstances for biomass operation will be very few.

    With most 'green' technologies niches are much narrower, because of the extra dependencies (locational, management, knowledge, intensity etc). That's what makes them supposedly 'green'. As soon as you go down the one-size-fits-all road you are back where you started.

    I, too, am surprised by how much fuel a modest woodburner consumes. It's inefficient and labour-intensive and on the verge of being a pain. But within its limitations it's reliable. The supplier is a family business, the fuel comes from nearby woodland and our house is in the sticks, so to speak. We're within the niche, but most town and city dwellers will not be. Anything more complicated involving biomass would have been too much for us to cope with.

    We need to be much clearer about what works in what circumstances, as your post on 'Low energy homes - they don't always work' was saying. And cut out the brainless ideology, especially from those in AECB who should know better.

  7. Message relayed from Chris Herring:

    As Chair of the AECB, I would like to clarify a few points in Mark's blog regarding the AECB and the biomass paper to which the blog refers.

    First, Green Building Magazine is an independent publication and does not directly represent the views of the AECB. As Mark says, its editor, Keith Hall, was also with his wife Sally, founder of the AECB. The AECB has no editorial control of the magazine but it is offered as a 'member benefit' to all AECB members. It is also available to non AECB members by subscription. Nothing in the magazine represents an AECB position.

    The biomass discussion paper was written by Alan Clarke and Nick Grant, with the support of others. It was published to do what is says: promote discussion. It presents an important argument, which deserves attention. It has stimulated extensive discussion on the AECB forum http://www.aecb.net/forum/index.php/topic,2649.45.html as well as elsewhere, for example the Green Building forum.

    It is true that the biomass paper has elicited some strong opinions from AECB members. This is not surprising as the AECB membership includes some of the most knowledgeable professionals committed to sustainable construction in the UK.

    It is not true that the AECB is split. The AECB is a membership organisation which enables networking between its members. Debate and discussion are part of the lifeblood of the AECB. We need an open and questioning approach to sustainability issues. I hope the AECB continues to foster this among its members and more widely for a very long time.

  8. Thanks for this Mark, as one of the authors of the paper I really didn't know how to respond when I saw the latest issue of GB Mag. I just felt a real sinking feeling. We offered the paper for publication and were genuinely surprised that it was turned down.

    However, like Chris, I don't agree that it has split the AECB.

    Also I disagree with Building Stoat that the issue is: 'a simple 'split' between the 'Low Carbon, Climate Change camp' and the Renewable and Sustainable camp' .

    The paper un-apologetically focusses on CO2 (the main driver for the subsidy and promotion of biomass in the UK) but also addresses energy security and sustainability which can't be viewed separately in my mind.

    We knew that our findings would be uncomfortable for many people, including ourselves, so we went to great lengths to run the various drafts past a wide range of experts and practitioners including several advocates of biomass without any hint of a split.

    Alan and I are doing our best to read all the discussions about the paper on various blogs and forums. It is however pretty disheartening to read posts by people who clearly have not actually read the paper and so point out, for example, that unlike gas, biomass is renewable or that growing trees locks up the carbon released by burning them.

    Thanks for keeping the discussion alive. It is my hope that big environmental issues such as this can be discussed rationally and openly.

    So that's wood stoves, any one up for a quiet chat on nuclear power??

    (and no I'm not pro nuclear but I was pro biomass a few months ago)

  9. Chris HerringDecember 30, 2010

    Mark, thanks for getting my comments up via your account. Seems to have been a bit of a technical glitch with the blog! I would very much echo Nick's comment: the big environmental issues like this need to be discussed rationally and openly. I hope that the AECB can continue to play its part in enabling this to happen.

  10. Matt
    I think you have made a good point about the importance, beyond AECB, of policy regarding future biomass. There are clearly vested interests riding on biomass.

    I was one of the scientists privileged to be able to point Nick and Alan to evidence while they prepared their study. I liked their approach to the 'boundary conditions' that must apply when trying to calculate the effects of using biomass on a very large scale as a fuel. To justify using forest products for heating or for electricity needs a particular set of facts, and facts are always complicated. Unless AECB contributors can address or even contribute to the factual base, their opinion is likely worthless, IMHO. A lot turns on crawling over evidence, and demanding more data and scientific credibility of those presenting it.

    One calculation you can do on the back of an envelope is to confirm that large scale biomass in UK requires very large imports. Those making money from biomass already well understand this - from wood chips to palm oil. Self-sufficient - I think not?

    Policies related to climate change in a world of increasing competition for resources including fuel, present serious dangers. I fear the industrial economy, particularly our latterday version, finally trashing the world on its way out, with the help of a world biomass exporting industry

    Like Nick I was vaguely in favour of biomass until faced with the real questions. And yes, I too was sceptical of nuclear power for the usual reasons. These 'downsides' still stand, but ... given the emerging predicament(s)?

  11. Apologies to readers who post and find messages deleted. There appears to be a gremlin at work here - or else I am being hacked. It is certainly not my intention to delete posts, except where they are obviously spam. Here's one from Derrick that got posted and then disappeared, and its interesting and will maybe develop a future post from me.

    Mark, here is a very well-reasoned argument in favor of biomass by a new contributor to the GBF, Bruno Prior. Go to p.3.




  12. Wood as a fuel is a good option for many rural dwellings which otherwise depend on oil. I am one of many rural dwellers who switch off their oil CH when possible and burn wood to keep warm. No way is my landlord going to update the CH with gshp or similar if it costs him money. I can't even get permission for cavity wall insulation (well, I am still waiting 2.5 months after the request was made).

    However, it is not a good idea to divert woodstocks to fuel power stations, which is already happening. This has aleady distorted the domestic woodfuel market, and the power stations need vast quantities that our own woods cannot supply. A consequence is that we will be importing wood to fuel new power stations, e.g. in south Wales. Stupid. Most of Britain's native woods are in dire need of management. Lack of traditional timber and wood cutting (carried out for millennia until just after WWII) has led to birds like the song thrush and nightingale becoming red listed. Our native woods, and new broadleaf plantings of species like ash, have great potential to provide woodfuel for serving rural properties. In the long term we should be looking at replacing most of the UK's alien conifer plantations with broadleaved woodland that would be sustainably managed for timber and fuel. This would have multiple benefits. For long term carbon storage, there are vast areas of Britain's uplands which are biodiverse-poor and also crap for grazing, e.g. covered in matgrass. Rewilding some of these areas to scrub and woodland would be appropriate for long term carbon sequestration. The more accessible lowland woods should be sustainably managed for woodfuel and timber supply. By managing on a rotation, the carbon accounts will be neutral at worst. The Forestry Commission has done a lot of work in this area and has issued a woodfuel strategy.

    I was concerned to read about the implied 'censorship' of GBF but surely this is something AECB can address. After all we are all grown ups. GBF is fantastic. I for one shall continue to use it (suegreenbuilding on that).

  13. Chris HerringJanuary 08, 2011

    Sue, just to clarify, Green Building Forum (GBF)is run and moderated by the Green Building Press (proprietor and editor, Keith Hall). The AECB has no influence over nor moderation in this forum. The AECB Forum is moderated by the AECB, and there is a very useful discussion on this biomass topic there http://www.aecb.net/forum/index.php/topic,2649.45.html

  14. Chris HerringJanuary 10, 2011

    And a very interesting addition to the discussion has just gone up on the AECB forum, posted by author Nick Grant. See http://www.aecb.net/forum/index.php/topic,2649.45.html

  15. Nick's premise is that he is using a wood boiler. My understanding of the RHI as it was in the consultation document was that wood burners with back boilers were not on the list.

    Biomass includes burning anything grown. A bit of a broad topic that includes potatoes and grass. Its certainly not all about logs.

    There are some heating systems that work quite efficiently - certainly much better than the one they used.