There is growing concern amongst local environmental conservationists that timber from state forests in the Nambucca Valley is being earmarked as a substitute for coal.
Last September Forestry Corporation confirmed they were carrying out a trial in the nearby Tarkeeth State Forest to transform logging by-products into biomass fuel instead of burning it. Forestry Corporation explained the areas logged were "plantations that were specifically planted on previously-cleared farmland during the 1960s and 70s for timber production".
But environmental groups remain sceptical.
"It is likely native forest timber is being used for fuel in Way Way Forest near Macksville," local environmental scientist Michael Jones said.
"A mix of gum tree species, including Blue gum trees, have been logged and cut into short lengths."
The Forest Ecology Alliance (based in Nambucca) is also concentrating on a campaign to stop planned logging operations in the Newry State Forest, behind Valla. One of their main concerns is that the Newry State Forest will be used in much the same way that the Tarkeeth State Forest was.
Forestry Corporation has denied there are any plans to use "natural forest" timber from the Newry State Forest for biomass fuel, and reiterated that in the few trials they have conducted in state forest plantations, it was the "residue" - branches and tree crowns - that was carted away to be burned for energy.
There are also no harvest plans for the Way Way State Forest on their website.
"The operation currently being planned to harvest and regrow timber from natural forest areas of Newry State Forest will be a selective harvesting operation in which almost 70% of the site is permanently excluded from harvesting and will be set aside for conservation purposes," a spokesperson for Forestry Corporation said.
"In the remaining area trees will be selectively harvested for renewable timber products to be processed by local mills employing local people.
The area will not be clear felled. No biomass for energy production will be sold from the site.
According to Forestry's website, the 657ha wrapping around Jaaningga Nature Reserve (at Spicketts Creek) is currently in the planning stages of a proposed selective harvest.
But directly beside that, 527ha of native forest overlapping the Bollanolla Fire Trail is planned for "intensive harvesting".
Both operations were originally estimated to have been completed by now, but the areas are still listed as being in the planning stage according to Forestry Corporation's Harvest Plan portal.
Furthermore there is 63ha of native forest at Little Newry which is being planned for "mixed intensity harvesting", with an estimated start date of March 1.
Newry State Forest includes a mixture of native forest and hardwood plantations, and there is 137ha of plantation (NRY010) bordering the Kalang River which is in Forestry Corporation's 12-month plan of harvest operations.
"Newry State Forest has been harvested for timber and regrown many times over. The trees harvested in this operation will be regrown so the forest can supply renewable timber again for future generations much as it has many times in the past. Forestry Corporation is completely transparent about its operations and once the harvest plan is complete it will be published on our website," the Forestry Corporation spokesperson said.
Plans to harvest and regrow renewable timber from operations in Nambucca State Forest are underway to produce timber products for processing at local mills and this plan does not include the sale of any biomass.
While Forestry Corporation has said their biomass fuel generation trials have only extended to a small number of plantation operations to date, local environmentalists are concerned that could change very soon.
In April last year Hunter Energy announced they would be recommissioning the 151 MW Redbank Power Station near Singleton "to operate on 100% biomass with minor feed modifications".
"Hunter Energy will refire the Redbank Power Station using biomass by introducing waste wood products into the fuel mix," the Hunter Energy website reads.
The Australian Renewable Energy Act 2000 names biomass as an eligible renewable energy source.
It has been estimated the recommissioned power station will generate enough electricity to power 200,000 to 250,000 homes.
In the November 26 (2020) Issue of Timber & Forestry eNews there is a call for expressions of interest from waste wood producers to supply biomass for Redbank from mid-2021.
"Prospective suppliers should be able to supply a minimum of 2000 tonnes a year, and should be located within a 400 km radius of Singleton," the ad reads.
This covers an area north of Grafton, south of Moruya and west to Nyngan, Condobolin and Moree.
North East Forest Alliance spokesperson Dailan Pugh is concerned the NSW Government plans to fund Redbank's reinstatement.
"A day after the Government amended its own Electricity Infrastructure Investment Bill 2020 to add the Hunter as an additional renewable energy zone, Hunter Energy sought Expressions of Interest to supply the mothballed 151 MW Redbank Power Station (near Singleton in the Hunter Valley) and make it into one of world's ten biggest biomass power plants," he said.
Guardian News contacted Minister for Energy and Environment Matt Kean's office for comment and we were told by a spokesperson for the Department of Primary Industries that "no money had been committed to Hunter Energy for the Redbank Power Station, and there was no intention to do so in future".
However the possibilities of biomass energy production have been a consideration by the NSW DPI for some time.
A North Coast Residues report published by the DPI in November 2017 was commissioned to "determine the potential availability of forestry residues for bioenergy generation and other applications on the North Coast of NSW".
The report concentrated on three major hubs: Grafton, Kempsey and Bulahdelah, with each encompassing a 100km radius.
The report found the total estimated volumes of forestry residues on the North Coast to be "close to one million tonnes".
The forestry biomass available is significant and certainly enough to support the development of large and small scale bioenergy generation systems.DPI's North Coast Residues report
"The volumes available would be enough to support, for example, at least six average-sized pellet production facilities (producing 100,000 tonnes of pellets / year), with enough combined electricity generation potential to supply annual electricity needs of over 200,000 homes in NSW."
The report also noted that "volumes of harvest residue biomass from native forests (including public and private) were much higher than for sawmills and plantations".
The concern from environmentalists is that a switch from coal-fired power to wood-fired is a step away from the goal of reducing carbon emissions, while also potentially diminishing biodiversity.
"High conservation value forests are being cut down, chopped up into pieces and burnt in furnaces for no economic gain," environmental scientist Michael Jones said.
"Burning native forests for electricity will increase CO2 emissions and contribute to the rapidly worsening climate and biodiversity emergencies and take money from genuine renewable projects," North Coast Environment Council Vice-President Susie Russell said.
The North Coast Residues report admitted that "although many studies demonstrate the [greenhouse gas] GHG benefits of using forestry residues for energy generation, others argue that this practice does not result in GHG benefits, with some claiming worse outcomes than the use of coal for electricity generation".
But it also goes on to say that "from a climate perspective, using biomass that would have otherwise been left in the forest to burn and/or decay for bioenergy generation results in positive outcomes, especially if biomass is used to produce electricity displacing the use of coal".
"This is true even when the carbon dioxide emissions from burning the biomass to generate energy are included in the calculations. In practice, the CO2 released will be reabsorbed by the growing trees in a sustainable harvest system, eventually negating the impact of such emissions," the report concluded.
But North East Forest Alliance's Dailan Pugh is unconvinced.
"Claims that burning native forests is renewable energy with no net carbon emissions is a dangerous nonsense, as it is even more polluting than coal, releasing up to 50% more CO2 than coal to generate equivalent amounts of energy. Redbank will continue to be one of the most polluting power stations in Australia, releasing some 1.8 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year," he said.
"The emissions will be significantly increased by cutting and trucking millions of trees as logs or woodchips to Singleton.
We are in a climate and extinction emergency and need to transition to genuinely renewable energy and reduce atmospheric carbon as soon as possible, this will require retaining every tree we can to take up and store carbon, not increasing logging and clearing to pump more into the atmosphere.
"Establishing a market for small and 'defective' trees, and uncommercial species, and calling it 'waste' or 'residue' facilitates increased logging intensity and encourages more land clearing."