Related: Traditional owners, Conservationists Protest far South Coast Logging | SEFE BioEnergy Project | Chipstop: Forests in the Furnace | Online Petition
Biomass power stations are classified as low carbon renewable energy, as they generally burn biological waste byproducts to generate electricity. The Eden woodchip mill announced plans to build a new power station fuelled by wood waste from logging native forests in November 2008. The mill's owner proposed to market the power station as both renewable and low carbon, even though over 70 per cent of the biomass would be from native forests. Waste that is now primarily recycled as garden mulch for gardens in Melbourne and Sydney.
NSW Greens MP John Kaye pointed out in December 2008 that "Forestry biomass is at least four times worse than burning coal. Forestry biomass will not be economic, sustainable or low carbon." Dr Kaye outlined the myths being pedaled about the proposed biomass power station:
The native forest destroyers rely on multiple layers of propaganda, each of which is more outrageous than the previous. The first is the idea that the furnace will be fuelled by mill wastes. The concept of wastes conjures up safe images of that which would have no other uses and would be discarded. Nothing could be further from the truth. Economic forces will inevitably drag woodchips into the furnace of the power station once the plant is built, as the export price for woodchips plummets and the unit wholesale price of electricity rises dramatically. Just as whole logs are currently declared waste and hence fed into the chippers at Eden, so too will woodchips be declared appropriate fuel for the power station. No matter what prohibitions are contained in the conditions of consent, regardless of the promises made by the State and Federal governments, and irrespective of undertakings by South East Fibre Exports, the economic inevitability is the forests of south-east New South Wales being fed into furnaces to generate electricity.
The second myth is that forest biomass is an economic source of power. The massive subsidies paid by the New South Wales Government to the chip-mill owners deliver wood at less than one half of its economic value. The forest furnaces will be able to out-compete other cheaper sources of power that do not enjoy the same subsidies, including wind and solar thermal power.
The third myth is the idea that native forest biomass power generation could be declared renewable and qualify to produce certificates under national and State targets. The exploitation of the south-east, the steady conversion of native forest into managed plantations and the devastation of native species and biodiversity are the antithesis of sustainability. An industry that destroys priceless native forests could never be called renewable by any but apologists for the multinational profit takers.
The fourth myth is that the electricity from native forest biomass is low carbon emitting. The theory is deceptively simple. The CO2 emitted from the burning of the wood will be reabsorbed by tree regrowth and in this perfect world there is little or no net release of carbon. Proponents refer to it as solar energy, where photosynthesis stores the energy of the sun as chemical energy.
Forests NSW has been disgracefully negligent in its data collection on carbon storage and release in its forests. Recent work by Professor Brendan Mackey and his team at the Australian National University casts doubt on current carbon accounting practices. Our very rough analysis, based on forestry industry and peer-reviewed data, suggests that for every megawatt hour of energy generated by south-east native forestry biomass, more than 6.4 tonnes of CO2 would be released instantaneously. This is more than 6.4 times the amount of CO2 released from burning coal to produce the same amount of energy. Certainly regrowth would bio-sequester some of this carbon but at a very slow rate. It would take about 80 years of regrowth to capture 5.4 tonnes, thus returning the greenhouse gas emissions to the same level as coal.
However, the forests are harvested on a much shorter cycle. After 20 years, the forests would have captured only two tonnes, leaving more than four tonnes in the atmosphere. Forestry biomass is at least four times worse than burning coal. Forestry biomass will not be economic, sustainable or low carbon.
"Consideration of this proposal by the ALP Government breaks its promise given under Bob Carr that native forests would never be used for power generation", claimed Noel Plumb of anti woodchip group ChipBusters. " A promise given after public outrage at such proposals."
"The woodchip industry is seeking to create a massive new market for woodchips through burning the forests for electricity production, on top of export woodchips for paper production. It is known to the electricity industry as 'dead koala power' and leading industry players are shy of it, the public won't buy it." said Noel Plumb, "It is a disgraceful proposal that will ensure not only the extinction of the last koala colony in the South East Forests, in Mumbulla SF, but also lead to the extinction of other endangered wildlife in the forests, including owls, bats, parrots, gliders and potaroos."
Potential consequences for Climate
The proposal has been criticised by Victorian climate and hydrology researcher and consultant, Aron Gingis, who said that the plant will have an adverse affect on air quality which will cause a decline in rainfall, affecting river flows and leading to an increased bushfire risk due to dry conditions. He told the ABC that the project will have devastating consequences for the Snowy River. "The area of the catchment of the Snowy River will get basically nil rainfall and snowfall," he said. "In last September you had a bit of snow in the area, about 30 or 40cm in some areas. If they had that biomass power plant operational, clouds would simply not precipitate in South East slopes at all." he said.
Harriet Swift of local forest conservation group CHIPSTOP said "The industry describes woodchips as waste wood from logging operations but it's a sham. An average of 90% of all trees felled in South East NSW and East Gippsland VIC forests go straight to the chipmill. We are facing approval by the Government to this monstrous proposal in less than 3 weeks. The Planning Minister has called it a state significant infrastructure development and is set to approve it under the infamous Part 3A powers that effectively override the Environment Planning and Assessment Act."
A similar proposal under Bob Carr as Premier to burn forests as charcoal for silicon production was defeated.
"Australians have the common sense to know that this is a dirty deal - 'dead koala power'," said Prue Acton OBE of the South East Regional Conservation Alliance. "The proposed power station is not clean, it is not green and it is not going to happen. Conservationists have been battling to save the last koala colony in the South East Forests from woodchipping for paper pulp. The Eden Chipmill Power Station must not be allowed to kill off the koalas or any other forest animals. Its time to call a halt to all woodchipping of our forests."
"The NSW Government seems actually to want another running brawl on such a losing issue, all the way to the next election. It will certainly get a brawl if Premier Keneally does not step in to put a quick stop to this menace and, in so doing, restore some confidence in its environmental promises." said Ms Acton.
The native forests in South East Australia have been shown by scientific research to be the world's most carbon dense forests.
Public submissions on the assessment for the biomass power station can be made until April 22 at the NSW Government Planning Major Assessments. Submissions can be made online.
Prue Acton asks why green carbon is being ignored by the government
- South East Region Conservation Alliance (SERCA) media release, Apr 10, 2010, Massive New Woodchip Threat To South East Forests NSW, "Dead Koala Power" (PDF)
- ABC South East NSW News - Apr 15, 2010, Researcher fires up over chipmill power
- NSW Greens MP John Kaye Adjournment speech, Dec 2, 2008, Adjournment Speech: Eden Chipmill and 'Green Power'
Takver is a citizen journalist from Melbourne who has been writing on Climate Change issues and protests including Rising Sea Level, Ocean acidification, Environmental and social Impacts since 2004.