Analysis: Is burning biomass worse than coal? UK’s largest power station under scrutiny by UK broadcaster for it’s biomass policy?

 

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Dispatches reporter Antony Barnett. Photo credit: Channel 4 Dispatches.

By Anders Lorenzen

In order to deal with climate change, many countries are rapidly turning their backs on coal. The UK, the birthplace of the industrial revolution and that of the coal industry has been most rapidly switching away from coal. And the UK has, quite quickly, gone from burning lots of coal to hardly any at all. But has this come at a price? That was what researchers and investigative journalists at UK broadcaster Channel 4’s Dispatches programme set out to find out.

Their case study was Drax, the biggest power station in the UK, who previously produced all their electricity by burning coal and have now switched large parts of the facility over to burning biomass instead with the aim to completely convert it to a biomass facility.

This would help the UK government to meet their climate targets as biomass is classified as a renewable energy and carbon neutral source by the European Union (EU). The UK has pledged to cut carbon emissions by 57% by 2030 and getting Drax to switch from burning coal to wood is playing an important part in that. Drax now produces up to 17% of Britain’s renewable electricity which is enough to power four million homes. But Dispatches asks the question: what are the carbon savings of switching to biomass if any?

Drax – still a dirty player?

This edition of Dispatches named ‘The True Cost of Green Energy’, found that hardwood trees in the US were felled en masse and then transported to the UK, which is by no means responsible forestry (a claim made by Drax, who say they only engage in responsible practices) and as result unique habitats, as well as biodiversity, became threatened. On top of that this process is subsidised through a levy of £700 million a year on taxpayer electricity bills and is resulting in tonnes of CO2 emissions. The programme visited a laboratory at the University of Nottingham who conducted a simple experiment to compare the carbon dioxide emitted when burning wood pellets, similar to those used by Drax, instead of coal. It found that to burn a number of wood pellets that would generate the same amount of electricity as coal it would actually produce roughly 8% more carbon. This is of course at odds with what Drax themselves claim, that burning wood pellets instead of coal as well the tree growth storing carbon reduces carbon emissions by more than 80%. Drax also claimed that the replanting of trees means all the C02 emitted during combustion will be taken up in the new biomass. But scientists interviewed in the programme argued that it will take decades for forests to regrow and subsidising biomass from wood pellets is fuelling an industry that’s making climate change worse in the short term.

Interviewed for the programme Professor Bill Moomaw said: “If we take the forests and burn them the carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere instantly, in a few minutes. It takes decades to a century to replace that. The analogy is – think of a bathtub – the water’s coming in the tap, the water’s going out the drain. The level’s rising.  At some point, if it’s coming in faster than it’s going out it overflows. That is the irreversible point of climate change”.

Destruction of southern US forests

Dispatches argued that the implications travel far further than the UK when we see the reporter, Antony Barnett, travelling to the southern states of the US to investigate the source of wood that is now being turned into millions of tonnes of wood pellets to be burnt at Drax. Footage reveals huge areas of hardwood forest in the state of Virginia being chopped down and transported to a factory owned by US firm Enviva that grinds up logs into pellets. As one of Enviva’s main customers, a large proportion of these pellets are then shipped across the Atlantic to be burnt at Drax.

However, Drax came out in defence of their policies, chief executive, Andy Koss said:

“I am very comfortable that all the material that we source meets regulatory standards in the UK and meets our very strict sustainability criteria.” He also said that the programme’s finding was a flux and not consistent with the overall industry “vast majority of the wood comes from residue and waste material”, he stated.

Also, the UK government came out in defence of the policy. A spokesperson for the Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said: “Between 1990 and 2016, the UK reduced its emissions by over 40%. We have the most stringent biomass sustainability provisions in Europe. Environmentally friendly, low carbon bioenergy can help the UK to transition to a more diverse energy mix, increase our energy security, keep costs down for consumers and help us to meet our 2050 carbon targets.”

Organisations drum up criticism of Drax

However, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a US organisation, was not convinced: “Drax’s ability to turn our forests into fuel rests on its capacity to hide from the British public the ugly truth of how this industry operates. This investigation is so threatening to Drax because it lets the British public see with their own eyes the reality of this dirty and destructive industry. Drax’s `green’ image was ground to a pulp,” so said Sasha Stashwick a senior advocate at NRDC.

And Adam Colette of the Dogwood Alliance, a US organisation working to protect southern forests, added “The forests of the Southern US, which are some of the most biodiverse in the world, are being devastated by an industry promoting itself as a solution to climate change. Drax can no longer deny that whole trees are going into the facilities that manufacture their wood pellets. That must stop. At this point, the evidence is so overwhelming that the UK Government is looking ridiculous in their denial of the truth.”

And it seems there is a growing body of evidence to back up these criticisms of biomass, with recent research from Chatham House and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showing that burning wood to generate electricity actually releases more carbon pollution than burning coal.

Conclusion

Admittedly this is a complex issue. The Channel 4 investigators were clearly out to paint a bad image of the practices conducted by Drax, but it cannot yet be ruled out that they were biased and looking for confirmation of their initial views and searched for the extreme examples while cherry picking the science that suited them. Not many would argue that the practices witnessed in the programme are detrimental to the protection of the environment and to tackling climate change. But there are many ways biomass is produced today and many would also argue it is about ironing out the bad ones while keeping the good ones. The science in this field is also up for debate as many different studies have come up with different results showing how burning biomass will impact emissions and protect biodiversity. It is all down to how the energy from biomass is produced. One could and should ask the question is it Drax and the policies that are to blame or biomass itself?     

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7 responses to “Analysis: Is burning biomass worse than coal? UK’s largest power station under scrutiny by UK broadcaster for it’s biomass policy?

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