Plans to build a network of biomass power plants in Scotland as part of Alex Salmond’s green revolution could damage the environment and cost thousands of jobs, according to a new report.
A shortage of domestic wood means that millions of tonnes of timber will have to be imported to fuel the plants, which are a key element of the SNP’s renewable energy strategy.
In addition to the carbon footprint of importing wood, the independent study warns that the surge in demand from government-subsidised biomass plants is likely to squeeze Scottish timber-processing firms out of the market.
According to the report, commissioned by the Confederation of Forest Industries (ConFor), demand for wood could exceed supply as early as next year — before the biggest biomass plants are built.
There are only a handful of the plants in Scotland, but more than a dozen are in the pipeline.
The biggest is a 225-megawatt plant in Hunterston, North Ayrshire. Others include four 100-megawatt plants at the ports of Leith, Rosyth, Grangemouth and Dundee. These four plants alone would burn four million tonnes of wood every year, almost half of Scottish timber production.
A subsidy of £8.1m was given to a 44-megawatt plant in Markinch, Fife, and £10m to a plant in Irvine, Ayrshire. The largest biomass plant in Scotland — and one of the UK’s largest — is in Lockerbie, Dumfries and Galloway. The £114m plant delivers 44 megawatts of energy and burns 475,000 tonnes of sustainable wood a year.
The report, by the Edinburgh-based firm John Clegg Consulting, concludes: “If new large users of British-grown wood and other wood fibre enter the marketplace, supported by subsidy, then it can only be at the expense of existing users, impacting negatively and disproportionately on sustainability, employment, carbon sequestration and mitigation of climate change.”
Stuart Goodall, chief executive of ConFor, which represents about 2,000 woodland owners and forest businesses across the UK, urged the Scottish government to reconsider its policy of subsidising biomass plants.
“Diverting wood from existing users to large-scale biomass plants will be bad for the environment and bad for jobs.
“By subsidising the dash to large-scale biomass, the Scottish government threatens to damage its own aim of a low-carbon economy — creating an artificial market that undermines its environmental and economic objectives. The policy will create a huge demand for wood that just isn’t there.”
Only 12% of Britain is covered by forest, the lowest proportion of any European country. About 20,000 workers are employed in Scotland in industries that use wood, such as saw-milling and wood-panel, paper and pulp manufacturing.
Tom Bruce Jones, joint managing director of James Jones & Sons, Scotland’s largest independent saw-miller, said there would not be enough domestic wood to meet demand once all of the biomass plants come on stream.
“The timber processing sector has invested more than £250m in Scotland in the past five years. As a company, we employ 550 personnel directly, and many hundreds more indirectly. We rely on secure long-term supplies of wood and, as can be seen from the report, there are not significant additional volumes available.”
Niall Stuart, chief executive of Scottish Renewables, said biomass plants would make a “significant contribution” to achieving government targets.
The Scottish government, which is opposed to nuclear energy, has set a target of 31% of electricity supply to be generated from renewable sources by next year, and 50% by 2020.
A spokesman said: “We want to see a balanced use of wood that allows all who depend on it to continue to flourish, and make the maximum contribution to growing Scotland’s economy.”