In March 2023, Rodenhuize 4, Belgium’s largest biomass powerplant, was shut down. Engie, its operator, did not apply for a renewal of public financial support, without which the plant is not profitable. The good news: such biomass powerplants no longer seem to be part of the French energy company’s strategy, anticipating recent evolutions in EU legislation.
Engie told Fern, “We have no plans for large-scale powerplants using solid biomass to generate electricity. Our priorities are projects based on renewable energy (wind, solar), projects to make the electricity system more flexible, and green molecules.”
In 2011, the 205 megawatt Rodenhuize 4 coal-fired powerplant near Ghent was converted to burn biomass to produce electricity. Dubbed “Max Green”, it was originally a joint venture between Engie and Belgian investment group Ackermans & van Haaren, which sold its shares to Engie in 2015. As of now, it will no longer burn biomass, but will still be used occasionally as a backup when the neighbouring Knippegroen plant is down, in order to burn by-product gases from the local Arcelor Mittal steel complex.
Rodenhuize 4 had the capacity to burn up to 850,000 tonnes of wood pellets (about 1.5 million tons of wood) per year – representing about a third of Belgium’s annual wood harvest (4.8 million cubic meters). But as Belgium is densely populated and wealthy it would be politically unacceptable to use so much domestic wood. Most of the wood burned was shipped from places with less opposition to massive wood extraction – Canada’s British Columbia, Chile, Russia – triggering Flanders’ Environment Minister Zuhal Demir to point out that some might come from illegal logging, and that it made little sense from an environmental point of view. “If we protect and plant extra forests in Flanders, we can hardly allow the Taiga in Russia to be cut down without mercy and used in our backyard.”
Even so, quite a lot of the wood burned at the plant was sourced regionally, causing tensions with other industry wood users, in particular the paper and wood panel industries.
Flanders’ transposition of the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive is ambitious, implementing the cascading principle (prioritising material uses of wood), and offering the possibility for energy companies to obtain public financial support (green certificates in Belgium) only if they are burning bark, fine dust, fine prunings, small twigs or stumps. In addition, support could be granted for other wood sources if the wood and paper industry federations declare that they do not need it as raw material.
Already in 2014, the plant had to close temporarily for three months because the local paper and wood panels industries refused to sign such a declaration.
In 2022, when it could have done so, Engie chose not to apply to renew their green certificates, and now appears to be turning away from the false solution of burning wood for energy. Good news for forests across the world!