I hope that I have done so by making the point about the completely different product to be used to generate electricity at the power stations in my constituency.
The very process of managing a sustainable forest increases its ability to act as a carbon sink. Most of the biomass used for energy production in the UK will come from abroad, but it should and will come only from sustainably managed forests. In north America alone, the forest products industry harvests more than 500 million tonnes of timber per year, but demand for its products is declining. Unless the forests of the south-eastern USA get new production outlets, the health of those forests will decline.
We should note the scale of what we are discussing. I repeat: in north America alone, more than 500 million tonnes of wood is harvested every year. In only three selected regions of north America—the south-east, eastern Canada and British Columbia—it is conservatively estimated that a further 120 million tonnes could be sustainably harvested and utilised annually. Those figures put into some perspective the 30 million tonnes of wood that Drax and Eggborough need to produce the 15 million tonnes of pellets required.
In Canada, by providing a commercial use for the vast area of beetle-killed boreal forest—an area the size of England and growing year on year—we can help to turn what is currently a huge emitter of harmful greenhouse gases into a new carbon sink through clearance and Government-controlled replanting. Furthermore, the pelletising process enables us to ship the wood safely to the UK without any risk of importing disease, a subject that has been mentioned previously.
Some Members are aware of the so called carbon-debt argument: because a tree burns in seconds but grows in years, there is somehow a carbon debt until a new tree has grown. The Department’s bioenergy strategy considered carbon debt in detail, however, and was explicit in its conclusion that, in situations where new forests are created, or existing forests have been under long-term management for production of timber and/or biomass, the harvesting of wood does not incur a carbon debt.
The biomass that Drax and Eggborough will use is to come from sustainably managed forests, which, as I said in response to an intervention, means that the growth must be at least equal to harvest, ensuring a neutral or ideally positive growth-drain ratio. In short, the sustainable management of trees in a productive forest means that they absorb more carbon than they would have done had the forest not been managed. In effect, such trees are building up a carbon credit as they grow. Can the Minister therefore reassure the House that the sustainability criteria for biomass, when the Government confirm them, will be based on the concept that a sustainably managed forest has a stable or increasing carbon stock, meaning that biomass from sustainable forest is at least carbon neutral?
Let me provide a few more basic facts about biomass generation. It is the only renewable technology able to supply base load renewable power at any scale. It is flexible and stable, and it has a continued role in balancing the grid with low-carbon generation. It is an essential part of the low-carbon energy mix and one of the only deliverable and affordable alternatives to the second dash for gas in which we might have to engage. Excluding biomass from the energy mix would significantly increase the cost of decarbonising our energy system. The Department estimates that sustainably sourced bioenergy could contribute around 11% to the UK’s total primary energy demand by 2020 and significantly more by 2050. Even taking into account the energy used to grow, transport and process the fuel, biomass-generated electricity produces substantially fewer emissions than are produced when fossil fuels are used.
Closer to home, I am mindful of the need to respect the effect of using biomass as a renewable fuel on other UK industries. The wood panel industry in particular is concerned about the impact on the historically low wood prices it has benefited from recently, but it should not have to worry because the wood that my power stations will use will come overwhelmingly, if not entirely, from markets in which it does not operate. The biomass industry relies on wood that no one else has a use for, certainly on that scale. It cannot pay the prices that the wood panel, paper, construction and furniture industries can pay, so instead of representing a threat to those industries, it provides a market for much of their previously unusable by-products that would previously have been burnt or put in landfill where they would degrade and emit carbon dioxide or, even worse, methane.
What about the benefits of biomass not just for electricity generation, but for the economics of the country as a whole? I am of the opinion that the biomass industry could generate infrastructure spending over the next three to four years alone of significantly more than £1.5 billion, leaving a lasting legacy of improvements to our ports and rail infrastructure while supporting thousands of jobs in the supply chain throughout the UK. That investment is needed now and should form part of the Government’s growth strategy.
I will come to a conclusion so that the debate can be opened to other hon. Members who have dragged themselves away from the Budget debate. I have stressed, perhaps overly, the conversion of my constituency’s two large coal-fired power stations to burn biomass, but that is just the first chapter, not the whole story, of the future of biomass. The conversion of existing fossil fuel plants is a speedy, low-cost first step in the transition from the use of carbon-intensive fuels to a greener alternative. It is an important part of what I see as a continuum in the use of biomass as a fuel source, which will also see new build, higher-efficiency power stations fuelled by a robust and sustainable fuel supply chain. Converting our coal-fired stations will not only see the country through an important transitional period, but will create a bridge to keep the lights on at the lowest possible cost. I suggest to hon. Members here today that on the grounds of electricity supply security, benefits to the economy and, most of all, emissions, sustainable biomass has a growing and valuable role and is a vital energy source for all our futures.