Waste wood supply ‘rollercoaster’ to continue – WRA

The UK’s growing portfolio of biomass-fired plants are well stocked for the coming winter but face increased competition for feedstock over the next 12 months as their reliability improves.

Trade body the Wood Recyclers’ Association (WRA) new chair Richard Coulson, who took over the role in spring this year, spoke to EWB about the current state of the wood waste market. 

In May this year, the WRA revealed imports of waste wood to the UK had quadrupled during 2020 as exports dramatically fell away. However, Coulson expects UK exports to pick up again both this year and next, to counterbalance the extra waste wood currently being experienced within the UK’s domestic market.

Coulson explained: “Everybody is carrying large stocks at present, and combined plant availability across the sector has been average at best so far this year due to various planned and unplanned outages at biomass plants. As we approach winter we would expect biomass plant availability to improve, and because our supply-chain is seasonal, with lower raw material availability in the winter, we would therefore anticipate seeing facilities de-stock through this winter.”  

Coulson explains the past year had been “really difficult” to navigate for the waste wood market. “The market went from being short of waste wood due to the closure of HWRC’s and limited construction works early in 2020, to becoming especially buoyant in the summer as lockdown restrictions eased. In addition to that, Guy Fawkes night didn’t really happen in 2020 so our recycling members experienced one of the busiest autumns on record in terms of how much raw material (waste wood) they were getting in.

“We entered 2021 with plenty of stock as Covid had interrupted the normal seasonality that our sector usually experiences. To compound the issue further, many end users needed to catch up on outage works meaning there was less off-take, which has led to where we are today. Our sector is also no different to other markets that have been hit by a shortage of HGV drivers, other skilled workers and imported equipment delayed by Brexit – the perfect storm as they say.” 

Looking ahead, Coulson predicts the “rollercoaster” will continue for a while. 

“Take Germany as an example,” he added. “A couple of months ago their market had excess wood. But now they’ve used that over supply domestically, and the market is shortening. We know that the biomass to energy market in the UK has the capacity to handle circa 3 million tonnes of fuel when running normally, and we will hopefully see that availability stabilise through this winter and into 2022. No doubt people are also looking forward to Guy Fawkes night celebrations this year, and given the panel board sector has full order books as well, you can envisage our normal seasonality returning and the supply-chain de-stocking and easing through the winter.”

Coulson’s predecessor, Andy Hill, told EWB in late 2019, before Covid, that the UK’s biomass-to-energy market “had finally arrived” as plants became operational across the country. 

According to Coulson, the buildup of facilities seen until 2019 was definitely over as the UK government’s only remaining financial support for biomass-fired builds, the Contracts for Difference (CfD) scheme, is in reality not the perfect fit for waste wood biomass. More importantly, he says, when functioning normally our domestic market is now balanced in respect of material availability.

He added: “I can’t see any more plants being built now. The current ones were supported with ROCs [Renewables Obligation Certificates] and RHI [Renewable Heat Incentive] and they’re both closed to new applicants now.”

Highlighting a difficult market for waste wood-fired plants recently, EWB reported last month that abiomass-gasification plant in Boston had been, unsuccessfully so far, switched over to processing solid-recovered fuel, as trouble with it and two other facilities all owned by Aviva Investors continued.

The waste wood-fired Port Clarence biomass-fired plant is also in the process of converting to waste processing. Recently the plant marked the third year since it passed its original date to be operational. 
(As printed by The ENDS Report, Tuesday October 5th 2021)
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