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Britain is set to plunder the lungs of the world to feed its growing hunger for wood to burn in power stations. A series of biomass-fired plants are being built in the UK that will trigger a 150 per cent surge in timber imports from 20 million tonnes today to 50 million tonnes by 2015, according to the Forestry Commission.

British power plants are already shipping wood from Canada, Brazil, Scandinavia and South Korea. Just one of the new biomass plants at Port Talbot, South Wales, will consume three million tonnes of wood per year — equivalent to 30 per cent of the UK’s domestic annual wood harvest of ten million tonnes.

But the plant, which is due to open in 2012, will generate only 300 megawatt hours of electricity, or about 0.4 per cent of the UK's current power-generating capacity. At least four more 300-megawatt plants are planned, including three in Yorkshire that have been proposed by Drax, operator of Britain’s largest coal-fired power station.

Another company, MGT, plans to build one on Teesside. A spokesman for Prenergy, which is behind the Port Talbot plant, said 90 per cent of its wood supplies would be imported, although he insisted that all of it would be sourced from proven sustainable sources.

Nevertheless, environmental campaigners have raised concerns about the carbon emissions involved in shipping the wood such large distances, while to meet UK pest control laws the timber will need to be baked before it can be shipped to the UK.

Wood industry officials have warned that British families could face soaring prices for a range of wood-based products, including furniture, wood panels and even wallpaper because of its impact on low-grade timber and wood pulp prices. “It’s going to push timber prices through the roof,” said Gavin Adkins, chairman of the Wood Panel Industry Federation.

He is concerned that large parts of the £1 billion industry that rely on wood as its main raw material will be forced offshore. Although wood prices have moderated during the recession, rapid growth in demand had led to a 25 per cent rise since 2007,

Mr Adkins said. “We operate in a low-margin industry and our ability to absorb such increases in raw material costs is limited. Inevitably these costs will have to be passed on to the consumer. Obviously, the timing could not be worse for the construction industry, which has been seriously hit in this recession.”

He said the number of jobs that may be lost was causing concerns for companies in the saw-milling, wood-panel and paper and pulp industries. The federation is lobbying for the biomass industry, which is supported by a government subsidy regime, to be given extra incentives to use waste wood instead of virgin timber for fuel.

An estimated 4.5 million tonnes of waste wood are landfilled in the UK each year, according to government estimates. A recent report from the Environment Agency stated that shipping timber from overseas could halve the potential carbon dioxide savings from biomass power.

 
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