Charges that Germany is cutting down its own and possibly the world’s forests for its Energiewende continue to crop up. But it turns out that the amount used to generate power is small – and almost all of it seems to be waste recovery. Craig Morris looks into the issue.
In a recent tweet, Mike Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute (BTI) made the erroneous claim that “Germany pulps & burns forests for electricity production.” With reference to my previous article on how Germany uses wood pellets, I pointed out to him that the amount of wood used to generate power is apparently close to zero percent. But how much wood is used for power plants in Germany exactly?
Wood is used in cogeneration units, but the official data does not even list wood pellets as a power source. The German Industry Ministry’s overview (see slide 6 of this PDF in German) has nearly 12 TWh (two percent of total power generation) from “solid biomass,” but that figure includes such things as sewage sludge – our first indication that Germany focuses on waste.
In a study published in May by the German Biomass Research Center (PDF in German), we find the following chart (my translation):
Here, we see that solid biomass without sewage waste comes in at around 8 TWh, or roughly 1.3 percent of German power generation. Note as well that the level fluctuates, but it has not grown in the past six years. Furthermore, most of that solid biomass seems to be recovered waste. For instance, a project in Murrhardt uses “wood chips from local sources,” a waste product from the timber sector, in cogeneration units (report in German). Another one near Hamburg uses “waste wood” (Altholz), but only for heat (report in German). Specifically, waste wood – or Altholz – is wood products that have already been used for other purposes, such as furniture. How much of that solid biomass is fresh timber from forests and not waste products that are being recovered (the latter being a good idea)?
Even with a translation, the chart above is cryptic. The labels A1 to A4 are explained in the German Wikipedia entry for Altholz. Roughly, A1 is untreated waste wood, with A4 being waste wood with the most chemical treatment. Otherwise, most entries in the chart above show that the wood is recovered from some other process. The only exceptions are “timber” and “short rotation forestry,” which collectively make up close to five percent of the total. Five percent of 1.3 comes out to be 0.07 percent – that’s how much of German electricity comes from fresh timber.
When contacted for this report, Jan Schlaffke of the German Pellets Institute (DEPI) confirmed that “pellets in Germany are made almost exclusively out of waste wood from sawmills.” The total amount of power generated from pellets, he said, was 0.087 TWh in 2014, meaning that Germany gets 0.0001 percent of its electricity from wood pellets, almost all of it recovered waste. If you are looking for countries that burn wood pellets from fresh wood, look to Belgium and the UK.
Germany produces heat from waste wood, which is preferable because the process is so much more efficient, including in cogeneration plants. Otherwise, keep in mind that even the growth of biogas from energy crops shown in the first chart above is over, precisely because the German public became concerned about the environmental impact. In 2014, the number of biogas units increased by only three percent, much of which use waste and manure as feedstock – a trend that has continued in 2015 (report in German). Clearly, Germany is not burning its own forests or anyone else’s for energy, much less electricity. In fact, a third of Germany is forest today, and that area is growing.