Without biomass it would be increasingly hard for Drax to remain operating post-2016, and would likely have resulted in the plant's closure. Biomass burning is therefore extending coal burning into the future.
Drax power station, the biggest carbon emitter in the UK, has converted two of six units to burn wood pellets in place of coal, with plans for a possible two further conversions.
Under the guise of renewable, low-carbon energy generation, Drax is receiving vast support to do this. In 2016 alone, Drax stands to receive around £660 million in subsidies.
These subsidies, in the form of Renewable Obligation Certificates, a Contract for Difference, and a Treasury Public Loan Guarantee, make Drax's biomass operations very profitable, and allow Drax to comply with the EU's Industrial Emissions Directive.
Without subsidies and support for Drax's biomass conversion, the power station would have faced closure. Secretary of State Vince Cable himself told the FT that without converting to biomass and the loan from the Green Investment Bank that has helped to finance it, Drax "would have closed down because it has to meet European rules on coal use and it wouldn't have been able to survive".
Drax biomass demand ravaging biodiverse forests
With three converted units, Drax would require (by our calculation) around 7 million tonnes of pellets every year. The vast majority of the wood that Drax burns is imported from the southern US and Canada, with imports expected to increase significantly as new pellet facilities begin production.
Even at the early stages of the growth of this industry, whole trees are being turned into pellets, with a significant proportion of Drax's biomass sourced from biodiverse hardwood forests in the southern US.
In its recent biomass sourcing report Drax insists it uses predominantly "forest residues" and "thinnings". However, on-the-ground research in the southern US shows that much of the biomass being sourced and falling within these categories is very large material, including whole trees cut from mature hardwood forests.
This has serious impacts on biodiversity, and means that the carbon emissions quoted by Drax are likely to be seriously underestimated.
On top of this, if evidence collected on wood sourcing for Drax's largest pellet supplier, Enviva, is applied to DECC's own recently published BEAC biomass carbon calculator, it can be shown that a significant proportion of wood that Drax burns results in as much as three times more carbon emissions than equivalent generation from burning coal.
Drax is currently getting away with reporting substantial carbon emission reductions because of a flawed carbon accounting methodology. Drax's carbon accounting relies on the Ofgem Solid and Gaseous Biomass Carbon Calculator (B2C2) - a framework that does not account for changes in the carbon stock of the forest, foregone carbon sequestration of land, or indirect impacts on carbon stocks in other areas of land.
The impacts of Drax's future sourcing are likely to be felt in other areas, too. The Brazilian company Tanac SA has reported entering into a sourcing agreement with Drax which will see the company build a large pellet plant and which is likely to result in the expansion of monoculture tree plantations in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul.
Mounting evidence and opinion from the scientific community shows that the carbon intensity of biomass electricity, and the carbon debt that is created when it is burned, must be fully accounted for. The scientific community is increasingly appealing to policy makers to correct carbon accounting mistakes.
These important factors must now be reflected in policy and eligibility for renewable energy subsidies. The question is, how many biodiverse forests will be turned into CO2 before this happens?
Support for Drax's massive coal burn by the back door
Drax's partial biomass conversion allows it to keep its remaining coal units open by lowering the plant's overall sulphur dioxide emissions, and therefore complying with the EU's IED.
Without biomass, by our calculations, it would be increasingly hard for Drax to remain operating post-2016, and would likely have resulted in the plant's closure. Biomass burning is therefore extending coal burning into the future.
If Drax converts 3 units to biomass, it will still be burning as much as 4 million tonnes of coal a year. This is a significant proportion of the UK's overall coal use, and is incompatible with recent party pledges to phase out unabated coal burning. If we are to have any hope of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, we have to leave remaining fossil fuels in the ground.
This means phasing out Drax's remaining coal units as quickly as possible. However, in contradiction to this, Drax will receive a direct subsidy in the form of Capacity Market payments on two of its operating coal units, which will only make the continued burning of coal at Drax more profitable.
Drax's coal has serious implications for communities across the globe, as well as the carbon emissions it is responsible for. For example, Drax burns coal from Colombia, where communities have been violently displaced for coal mining operations, and continue to be impacted by the environmental and health implications of the huge mines.
If the UK is to take its climate change and human rights responsibilities seriously, then coal burning at Drax must end.
Now, work towards genuinely sustainainable energy!
Subsidising the burning of biomass and coal at Drax, and the substantial environmental, human rights and climate impacts of its operations, must cease.
Energy-related subsidies should be spent on measures that reduce overall energy use, such as conservation and energy efficiency, and on genuinely low carbon and sustainable forms or renewable energy, such as sustainable wind and solar power.
We request that DECC halt subsidies for Drax's existing biomass capacity, commit to halting supports for further biomass unit conversions, and work towards the earliest possible phase out of its coal units.
This article is based on an Open Letter to the Department of Energy & Climate Change by the undersigned organizations delivered today, Earth Day 2015. Please refer to the original version for all annotations, references and calculations.
- Biofuelwatch, UK/US
- Fuel Poverty Action, UK
- Dogwood Alliance, US
- Campaign Against Climate Change, UK
- Fern, EU
- People & Planet, UK
- NRDC, US
- The Gaia Foundation, UK
- Coal Action Network, UK
- Operation Noah, UK
- Econexus, UK
- The Corner House, UK
- Center for Biological Diversity, US
- Reclaim the Power London, UK
- Global Justice Ecology Project, US
- Time to Act, UK
- London Mining Network, UK
- Occupy London, UK
- Colombia Solidarity Campaign, UK
- Occupy Environment Working Group, UK
- Global Forest Coalition, Int
- Comisión de Justicia y Paz de Colombia
- World Rainforest Movement, Int
- Comunidades Construyendo Paz en los Territorios, CONPAZ
- Comité Ambiental en Defensa de la Vida, Tolima, Colombia.