Biofuelwatch UK has recently published a short investigative article about Pinewells pellet mill in Central Portugal, which supplies pellets to the massive Drax coal-to-biomass conversion in the UK.  

Location of the mill: N 40º15’47.80” W 8º04’26.06″

The bioenergy industry argues that forest biomass used for energy is largely residues and secondary wood products. The Biofuelwatch article reveals that this isn’t true, and “over 80% of its feedstock was from primary forestry (i.e. logging) operations.” Google Earth images from March 2020 confirm this. The piles of roundwood are clearly recognisable on the yard of the pellet mill.

According to the article the Pinewells plant produced around 120,000 tonnes of pellets, which required 243,000 tonnes of wood. Based on the conversion factor of Forest Research UK website, this equals to 367,000 cubic meters (m3) of wood. This translates to 2.6% of the total Portuguese roundwood removal in 2019 (wood in a rough, under bark, EUROSTAT file “for_remov”).

Are these removals significant enough to be visible on Google Earth? The location of the pellet plant is in Carapinha in Coimbra region. Checking imagery from October 2006, no sign of the plant yet. Likewise in July 2009, still no sign of the plant (left side of red circle).

In 2009, the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive was published, which continued support for biomass energy from previous policies. Around this time the first sign of the Pinewells plant appear – buildings that are visible in imagery from October 2010.

April 2011. Zooming in, this picture suggests that the mill was still probably not fully operational.

But zooming out to the surrounding area, the first signs of large scale clearcuts appeared just 2 months later, in June 2011.

And a new closer look in May 2013 shows the piles of roundwood on the mill yard (and what it seems to be an expansion of the operation.

Zooming out again to compare images of the surrounding from July 2012 and May 2013, new clearcuts are appearing over this period.

The comparison of September 2015 and August 2017 confirms further clearcutting of forests surrounding the plant.

According to the European Commission, the Natura 2000 network is the largest global network of protected areas. The closest Natura 2000 site, Serra da Lousa is only 20 km by road from the pellet mill. There are 6 different forest habitat types listed inside this protected area. Comparing images from 2008 and 2017, enormous clearcuts are appearing. Is this wood ending up as wood pellets burned for “green” electricity in the UK?

There are still EU policymakers defending this liquidation of forests as climate-friendly. How many more forests will be cut until they are forced to acknowledge that burning trees for energy harms forests and the climate? Why are they so recalcitrant in the face of the evidence, anyway?

Additional note: Our post does not suggest that the clear cut in Serra da Lousa harmed natural habitat and we also do not have the confirmation of forest biomass originated from these clearcuts ended up in Pinewells pellet mill. However, the Renewable Energy Directive’s current sustainability rules allow forest biomass harvested in Natura 2000 sites to be burned and considered as renewable energy source.

Chipping Trees in Portugal for Energy in the UK