Published on February 19th, 2016 | by James Ayre


Wood Energy Subsidies On The Chopping Block In The Netherlands

February 19th, 2016 by  

Despite earlier moves towards the large-scale use of wood-fired (biomass) power plants, it looks as though lawmakers in the Netherlands are beginning to have doubts about the approach — with Dutch parliamentarians recently moving to suspend plans for wood energy subsidies.

The concerns highlighted by those in question are that such subsidies will damage the environment, waste money, and draw out the transition away from coal-fired power plants. Wood energy subsidies are fairly common in Europe currently (wood energy is classified as being renewable), despite their obvious association with deforestation, overall greenhouse gas emissions, and rising wood and paper prices.

Wood energy coal Netherlands

Humorously, much of the wood burned in Europe for supposedly environmental reasons (as a substitute for fossil fuels) actually has to be shipped all the way from the US — where it comes from, primarily, “pine plantations and natural hardwood forests” in the Southeast. To give you an idea of the scale involved, over 8 million tons of American trees and waste wood were processed to make 4 million tons of wood pellets for export to Europe during 2014.

Climate Central provides more:

Billions of dollars in Dutch government subsidies have been earmarked to help the owners of coal power plants blend wood pellets in with their coal fuel, reducing on-paper climate impacts through a practice known as biomass co-firing. Most biomass fuel is made from wood, although crops and agricultural waste can also be used.

A Climate Central analysis has shown that burning wood pellets for electricity can release 15% to 20% more carbon dioxide pollution than burning coal. Yet a loophole in European climate-protection rules allow nations and power plant owners to avoid counting any of the climate pollution released when wood burns.

Compared with its European neighbors, the Netherlands is a laggard on renewable energy. Wood energy is seen as a way of quickly boosting the share of renewables in Holland’s electricity mix from less than 6% in 2014 to the 14% mandated by the European Union by 2020.


The inherent ridiculousness of the approach has led to some opposition though, which appears to be growing.

“The majority of Parliament currently (now) wants to close all coal power plants in the Netherlands,” stated Jan Vos, a Labor Party parliamentarian who pushed for last week’s vote. “If we subsidize biomass for a timeframe of 8 to 11 years, which is currently the case, then that means that you have a lock-in for 8 to 11 years. We will have to pay those subsidies for that entire timeframe.”

“There’s an ongoing debate on the real emission reduction that biomass delivers, and if co-firing should be promoted at all,” explained Ernst Worrell, an energy professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “Subsidizing biomass co-firing may not only keep the power plants open longer, and hence burn more coal with increased emissions, but also result in high costs.”

The suspension relates to roughly $4 billion in tax revenue and energy fees that would have been used to support the use of wood pellets at the aforementioned coal-fired power plants. The suspension is relevant at least until “a coal plant phase-out” plan is published — after which, further decisions will be made.

Image Credit: Marcel Oosterwijk (some rights reserved)

Check out our new 93-page EV report, based on over 2,000 surveys collected from EV drivers in 49 of 50 US states, 26 European countries, and 9 Canadian provinces.

Tags: , , ,

About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.

  • Ronald Brakels

    Burning biomass to generate electricity does not generate more CO2 than burning coal unless it is done really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really stupidly. (And I want you to know I didn’t copy and paste all those reallys. I typed each on by hand. You suffer having to look at them, but I suffered typing them.)

    But even though it can be far better than buring coal as far as CO2 emissions and heavy metal pollution is concerned, it doesn’t mean the end result can’t be a bit depressingly dumb. For example, at one point the export of wood from Tasmania all the way to Europe was considered. Because of the low energy cost of ocean transport that’s not as CO2 crazy as it sounds, but it is kind of nuts considering that just a few hundred killometers across Bass Strait the Australian state of Victoria is burning lignite (brown coal) in what may be the worlds’ least efficient large power station. So yeah, hauling wood all that way when it could have been put to use much closer to home would be a bit dumb.

    But for those who don’t like the idea of burning biomass for electricity generation, the good news is it can’t really compete with wind and solar. So just keep erecting wind turbines, installing solar on your roofs, and investing in efficiency measures and you should keep biomass buring to a minimum.

  • Matt

    If made from scrap (saw dust at the mill, etc) or recycled wood/paper, it is one thing. But most of this is grown to make pellets. It was intended for heaters, using for electric generation is just trying to green wash a coal plant.

    • Ronald Brakels

      In England wood is used to get their largest coal power station (Drax? Is that what it’s called? Sounds like a James Bond villain, which is kind of appropriate when you think about it.) below the legal limits for sulphur while burning low cost high sulphur coal. Which is better than if it just burned low sulphur coal without any limits, but boy, we really gotta stop burning coal full stop.

      • JamesWimberley

        Sir Hugo Drax, villain in “Moonraker” IIRC?

        • Ronald Brakels

          That’s it! And while Moonraker was critically panned, In its defence I will point out that it was maybe the only Bond film up to that point that didn’t give the female lead a silly or demeaning name. Calling her, Holly Goodhead, at least suggested she had a high quality brain.

  • Victor Provenzano

    Wood biomass has higher net carbon emissions than coal, according to an article Climate Central, cited above, and according to an array of recent scientific studies. Not only is the use of wood biomass coming into question in Holland, this year the E.U., at the urging of the Greens, is on the point of voting to phase out its use as a fuel in the European electrical grid.

    First, in order to use wood as a fuel, one has to cut down trees, thereby eliminating part of an essential land-based forest carbon sink, which, before being cut down, was storing a vast amount of CO2 each year. Second, by processing and then transporting the wood for long distances (e.g., from the American Southeast to Holland), one is adding a significant amount of additional CO2 to the atmosphere. Third, when one burns the wood as fuel for any purpose, whether in a power plant or in a wood stove, one is releasing DECADES or CENTURIES of stored carbon into the air, when our immediate goal on a global scale has to be, instead, maximal decarbonization and the maintenance or restoration of our land- and sea-based carbon sinks (for instance, on average, in the southeastern state of Virginia, the trees live to be between 50 and 600 years old; see Fourth, in 99% of all cases, it takes many years or decades for a replacement tree to begin to absorb CO2 at the same rate as the tree that was harvested for fuel, thus by cutting down a tree in the Southeast for its wood biomass, one is creating a “carbon debt” that will endure either for decades or centuries (50 to 600 years on average in the state of Virginia). Fifth, wood biomass is a very inefficient low density fuel because around half of the wood is made of water and that same water has to be boiled off in order for combustion to begin to occur.

    Only through maximal decarbonization can we ensure that the earth’s existing or restored carbon sinks will begin to absorb as much CO2 as possible and thus lower the amount of ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere over time. Thus, one cannot insist enough on the unpardonable lack of reflection of those who continue to speak with reckless naiveté about “renewable” wood biomass without taking into account (1) its full array of life cycle carbon emissions and (2) the overall environmental consequences of using it as a fuel for any purpose.

    First of all, “sustainably” harvested wood can scarcely be found anywhere on the international market at this point. For instance, the wood that one can find that has an “FSC” stamp of approval on it does not even come minimally close to having been harvested in a “sustainable” manner. In a northern boreal forest, for example, one can only cut down around 1.5% of the trees each year in order to ensure that one is harvesting the wood “sustainably,” i.e., while at the same time reliably ensuring that the forest soil is being maintained along with the forest’s full biodiversity. A nominally “renewable” source of energy, such as wood biomass or palm oil diesel, does not in any way amount to a “sustainable” source of energy, since, for one thing, the net carbon emissions of both wood biomass and palm oil diesel are higher than those of coal.

    All the wood that has been harvested up to this point around the world should be either reused as is, repurposed, or recycled in a composite wood product. None of it should be used as fuel. If we begin to do this, then almost all of the carbon that had been stored in the wood over the decades or centuries of the lifetime of each already harvested tree will remain stored in the milled wood for as long as possible. Moreover, by adopting such a policy, we will be maintaining our existing carbon sinks, and, at the same time, we will neither be adding more life cycle CO2 to the air, nor creating a long-term “carbon debt” lasting for decades or centuries, nor foolishly using a low density carbon fuel with higher net carbon emissions than coal.

    • Freddy D

      Net carbon emissions from biomass can be quite friendly, depending on the context. Perhaps there need to be some rules of the game and better analysis overall to ensure that it’s done in an environmentally friendly way.
      – Locally produced, opportunistic waste biomass will decompose into atmospheric CO2 anyway within several years. There are huge quantities of urban trees cut down annually, nearly all of which end up in a landfill, for example,

      – On the other hand, any biomass production explicitly for that purpose – tree-farming for biomass – cannot be good in many ways and your article addresses this case in detail, with references.

      – Biomass is a terribly inefficient way to convert sunlight into useful energy. PV can do it at a rate between 0.1 and 0.2 (10-20%). Biomass is closer to 0.0001 or thereabouts – I’d need to find my old analysis on this. It’s a terrible conversion rate and thousands of times the land would be needed vs. PV. Plus, biomass takes water and agriculture. It can never scale to meet the world’s needs.

      Net net, there need to be rules of the game:
      – stop subsidies for biomass
      – biomass should be local and opportunistic waste. Communicate that Local and opportunistic biomass waste is fine and it’s good. Local pellets or cordwood (burned in high-efficiency, well engineered, certified equipment of course).

      – Focus the energy supply on scalable, renewables like PV, wind, etc.

    • Bob_Wallace

      So you would rather extract more coal from underground and add more carbon to our carbon cycle?

    • heinbloed

      There is nothing like “waste coal ” which could in theory subsidize “waste timber”.
      Read the article again:

      ” Humorously, …….over 8 million tons of
      American trees and waste wood were processed to make 4 million tons of
      wood pellets for export to Europe during 2014. ”

      What happened to the other half? And what would have happened to it if it had not been turned into pellets?

      EdF – the French troubled atom dwarf – is closing 5.2 GW of fossil power (oil and coal) in France:

      This base load is subsidized with a retrofitted wood chip burning facility (formerly a coal power plant) owned by EoN:

      About 30% of the steel ore used to make iron in Brazil is fired with charcoal made from wood.

      The new French wood chip power plant is planned to run on homegrown timber by 2026.
      The old French fossil power plants are scrapped, turned into recycled steel. Maybe using some of the power for the smelting process from the new wood chip power plant.

      • Jamset

        Steel ore?

        • heinbloed

          Iron ore !

    • JamesWimberley

      I have seen the management book for a section of the Vosges forest in France, going back to the 1850s when Napoleon III set up the “Office Nationale des Forêts” to manage French woodlands scientifically. In spite of three major wars and four changes of nationality, the forest is still roughly as they planned it originally. It approximates the ideal of 100 equal blocks, one for each year of age. The firs and pines are thinned at around 10 years (rubbish) and 40 years (firewood and poles) with a final cut for timber at 100 years. That’s what sustainable commercial forestry looks like. There isn’t nearly enough of it, and I doubt very much if the forests in Georgia being cut for Drax meet this standard.

  • Burning biomass, is just as dirty as burning coal, with the same health implications. And if we continue burning wood at the rate happening now, we will have no trees left to burn.

  • JamesWimberley

    The issue with wood pellets is scale. Used for secondary heating in home stoves, pellets are fine, as they can be sourced from scrap generated in sustainable commercial forestry. Once you start running power stations like Drax, waste isn’t enough and you have to cut whole trees on a huge scale. If the forests for this are genuinely managed for sustainability, it’s still carbon- neutral. But this claim is often dubious, and anyway the alternative of cutting for construction lumber is carbon- negative over a 100-year cycle.

    • Matt

      We plant two tree (2 ft finger thick) for ever one we cut down, so you know we are sustainable. That is thermal forestry practice on US public lands.

      • Jamset

        2 feet tall?

    • Peter

      Using biomass from already existing waste streams seems pretty similar to hydropower. A cheap dispatchable form of power, but the total amount of energy you have access to is limited.

      • Bob_Wallace

        I see biomass from wood waste as a potential deep backup electricity source. Those “seven hours a year” that aren’t practically covered by storage.

        • Peter

          I agree. The most important metric then becomes the capital cost of the generator with efficiency a distant second. Here reciprocating ICEs actually seem like a pretty good solution. It would be kind of ironic if they stay in use longer for electric power generation then in cars and trucks.

          On the other hand, if regenerative fuel cells can be made cheap enough I see them as a very attractive option for deep backup. The major problem with using excess renewables for hydrogen production, for the periods when the shorter term storage alternatives with better round trip efficiencies have already been fully charged, seems to be the high capital cost of electrolysis equipment when used with such a low capacity factor. Basically the deep backup problem in reverse. However, if you can use the same fuel cells for hydrogen production that you already have on hand for deep backup, then the economy changes.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Just use some coal plants. They’re already paid off and the inefficiency is not a big deal if used only a few hours a year.

  • Martin

    Burning wood-in any form only carbon neutral if the same amount is grown nearby (to eliminate shipping).
    My personal opinion.

  • Frank

    Billions huh? Could probably build a nice offshore wind farm with that kind of money.

  • Harry Johnson

    This is welcomed news for an otherwise thoroughly misguided policy.

  • Freddy D

    Seems like biomass is best suited for direct space heating rather than electric generation. Very little thermodynamic loss since the desired result is heat anyway.

    • S Herb

      There’s an argument that it is just the other way around. Space heating requires only warmish temperatures, which can be achieved by various means (including heat pumps and district heating with the waste heat from thermal electricity generation). Biomass can be used to generate the high temperatures needed for electricity or industrial processes. It can also be processed into quality fuels for long distance transport not suited to electrification. It can thus fill holes in the energy system not covered by wind and solar, and is too valuable to be used for low temperature heating.
      There is certainly something to this argument in the long term, but the short term benefits of replacing coal with internationally shipped wood pellets seem very dubious.

      • Ross

        Would much rather see the coal generators shutdown and replaced with battery storage taking advantage of the existing transmission links.

      • Ulenspiegel

        Biomass should only be used for high temperature industrial apllications or as chemical feedstock in Europe.

        Electicity generation can be done with wind, buildings can be heated (at low temperature) with heatpumps.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Biomass should be used when doing so reduces fossil fuel use.

          When/if a better solution is developed we can switch from the good to the better.

          • Ulenspiegel

            Sorry, you miss the point. There is a clear supply bottleneck in Europe when we are talking about sustainable biomass.

            Therefore, to waste money on a structure that is obsolete in ten years is IMHO not very intelligent. Woods pellets for the few buildings were alternatives do not work, the rest gets a thermal refit and a heat pump.

            The huge amounts of pellets in electicty generation in UK was a result of very poor efficienc of the coal power plants, we have a different situation in most other countries with real impact.

          • Bob_Wallace

            My two points were very clear. Do you not understand them?

          • S Herb

            ‘Pellets replace coal in power plants’ is for now basically a ‘cheat’ solution to European rules. It is a dead end, since it cannot be scaled much, but it may relieve the pressure to implement real solutions. Whether it is carbon positive or negative, and on what time scale, is fairly irrelevant.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Here’s the statement to which I responded….

            “Biomass should only be used for high temperature industrial apllications or as chemical feedstock in Europe.”

            My response was…

            “Biomass should be used when doing so reduces fossil fuel use.”

            Wood pellets reduce the use of fossil fuel in power plants. I assume that there is an net reduction in CO2 emissions once harvesting, processing and shipping energy uses are included. I assume less fossil fuel CO2 ends up in the atmosphere. If so, that’s a good thing.

            Now if you are correct and wood pellets can’t be scaled then there’s no need to worry about them interfering with real solutions. Those real solutions will need to be developed for the part that wood pellets can’t cover (can’t scale).

            We’ve got an immense problem on our hands. Anything that lowers additions to our GHG levels is a good thing (as long as there are not counterbalancing effects). If we can shave some fossil fuel use via biomass then great. Let’s do it, concentrate on the fossil fuel use we can’t displace with biomass, and get back to biomass later when the more important problem is solved.

            “When/if a better solution is developed we can switch from the good to the better.”

          • Ulenspiegel

            And you obviously did not get the timeframe argument. You can only spend money once. To spend it for things that are useless in a few years does not make sense.

            I prefer efficient coal power plants plus wind power over expensive biomass used as baseload power (and so on).

            The biomass aspect of the german energiewende is to a certain extend a failure. Biomass is now part of the problem not part of the solution, sorry.

          • heinbloed

            The article is about the Dutch biomass usage not being subsidized anymore.
            ( Unless it is of any profit like cheese, tulip bulbs and so on ..)
            The Dutch biomass usage here is the imported timber chips being fired in the converted coal power plants.
            Something that isn’t done yet in Germany.

            And coal has to go entirely in the Netherlands, CT reported on the issue.
            And the atom power in Borssele no one wants, it is running badly for the owners.
            And the gas fields are collapsing.

            I think what the general opinion is is that imported biomass can compete very well in this situation and needs no subsidies. Amsterdam is the continent’s largest biomass/timber chip and pellet importing harbor as far as I know, the biomass seen as a replacement of the ailing oil and coal business for the harbor.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Can’t argue with people who don’t do nuance.

          • Ulenspiegel

            If something is basically wrong, discussing nuances is not impressive. 🙂

Back to Top ↑