We read with interest your feature on biomass (The burning issue TTJ March 19/26) and government incentives for biomass.

No-one should underestimate the seriousness of the threat of irreparable damage being done to the sawmilling and panelboard sector in Britain as a consequence of additional government subsidies to encourage renewable fuels, following confirmation of new subsidies provided by the Renewable Heat Incentive. Frankly, for the UK wood-processing sector, this simply adds insult to injury, following the existing and very generous public subsidy provided by Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) which are worth millions of pounds per year to the energy industry.

There are increasing fears that we will now see even greater market distortion, as wood is displaced from traditional processors to the renewable heat and/or power sector, supported and encouraged by valuable public subsidies.

A huge effort has been made by organisations such as the UK Forest Products Association and Wood Panel Industries Federation to try to convince successive governments of the folly of their support mechanisms for renewable energy and the damage that could be done to wood processors, yet the Department for Energy & Climate Change does not appear to want to listen to the genuine concerns of the forest products industry. I fear that the truth of the matter is that successive governments have failed to address the problems of Britain’s ageing electricity generating plants and have happily signed up to green energy policies without, it would seem, giving adequate consideration to the consequences of their actions on other business sectors. As the old saying goes, ‘The devil is in the detail’, but the detail doesn’t seem to concern governments and their advisers; when things go wrong, they can simply brush criticism aside with statements referring to “unintended consequences”. That’s no consolation to someone whose livelihood is put in jeopardy as a consequence of ill-informed government policy and an unwillingness to listen to the genuine concerns of those who really know what they are talking about. The government’s latest sop that they would be prepared to take action if they see inappropriate material being used for biomass seems pretty hollow; by the time they wake up to the problem, it may well be too late for our sector.

As we have said repeatedly, the message is simple: wood that is suitable for product manufacture should be used for that purpose in the first instance. Burning virgin wood fibre, especially in large-scale electricity-generating plants, should be an end of life option, after the original product has been used, recycled and reused, thereby maximising the benefits of the wood. Moreover, we believe there is great scope for increased focus and encouragement of renewable energy from waste; this would at least go some way to reduce the pressure on wood supply and would have the added advantage of reducing waste disposal to landfill.

As all of us in the wood industry know, wood has a great story to tell; it provides valuable economic, social and environmental benefits; but with the introduction of the Renewable Heat Incentive, we have an even greater threat to our livelihoods.

We accept that some private sector timber growers may expect a bonanza, but how long will it be before they find themselves at the mercy of a small number of very big and powerful energy companies – a bonanza, if indeed there will be one for them, would not last long and in the meantime, the domestic wood-processing sector could be mortally wounded.

Our efforts to get the government to see sense must be redoubled as there is so much at stake. There has been further coverage in your columns recently about generic timber promotion; with the increasing threat of displacement of wood from the wood processing sector, which incidentally is also seen as a serious problem elsewhere in Europe too, perhaps those who espouse promotion should refocus their attention on the political arena. Once we have won that battle, we can return our attentions to generic promotion.

Tony Mitchell
UK Forest Products Association