Burned up: wood-fueled electricity could be more damaging than coal

Wood used for biomass
The UK’s voracious appetite for wood-fueled energy is sounding alarm bells among environmental advocates, health groups, and those living near clear-cut forests. SASHA STASHWICK argues that biomass is worse for our environment than burning coal.

If the public understood that we are using public money raised from electricity bill payers to subsidize the clear-cutting of American forests and increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere, then they would be outraged.

Drax Power, the country’s largest utility, began converting its old coal-fired boilers into ones that run on wood a decade ago, with the financial support of the UK Government. 

In 2017, subsidies to Drax cost Britons £729million, or nearly £2million pounds per day. These subsidies fueled a voracious demand: the UK is now the world’s top importer of wood pellets.

This has put the country out of step with the realities of climate science, economics, and the needs of the electricity grid. 

Increased awareness

Scientists do not see largescale use of biomass for electricity as the preferred de-carbonization approach. But that didn’t stop the Department of Energy, Business & Industrial Strategy from approving another biomass conversion at Drax Power Station this year.

The public is now becoming more aware that burning trees is not good for the environment, and voices against biomass are growing louder. 

In April 2018, Channel 4’s Dispatchesaired a hard-hitting investigative report exposing the destruction behind the UK’s move to replace dirty coal with wood fuel. 

As Dispatches journalists uncovered, in parts of the Southern US, unique hardwood forests that are massive storehouses of carbon are being clear cut, manufactured into wood pellets, and loaded on ships destined for Drax’s boilers.

If the public understood that we are using public money raised from electricity bill payers to subsidize the clear-cutting of American forests and increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere, then they would be outraged.

Back in January 2019, researchers at MIT found that when plants switch to biomass, “the first impact is an increase in carbon dioxide, worsening global warming over the critical period through to 2100, even if the wood offsets coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel”

They weren’t alone. At the same time, a whopping 800 scientists wrote to the European Commission to say biomass electricity is a false climate solution.

Recommended reforms 

The European Academies of Science Advisory Council (EASAC) agreed. They warned that, “forest biomass with long carbon payback periods could increase atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, putting Paris Agreement targets at risk”. 

The EASAC urged policymakers to reconsider their approach to using forest biomass for energy. 

In May 2018, in a first-ever statement from a conservative institution of its kind, the right-leaning think tank Bright Blue published a report on strengthening the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act.

They stated plainly that, "some sources of bioenergy, such as woody biomass in the power sector, do not deliver genuine greenhouse gas emission savings relative to fossil fuels".

Amongst the recommended reforms was complete accounting for biomass carbon emissions, including at the smokestack, to prevent an expansion in the use of bioenergy that sets the UK back in its climate goals. 

If this happened, the jig would be up. Woody biomass would account for more carbon emissions per watt of electricity than coal, and no policymaker could justify subsidizing it.  

‘Missing emissions’

Unfortunately for Britons who care about climate change, a June report from the venerable think tank Chatham House showed the UK Government to be increasingly isolated on this controversial fuel: “Only the UK has seen a substantial increase in the generation of electricity from biomass both in absolute terms and as a proportion of electricity from renewable sources”.  

Chatham House also identified the UK as top importer of wood fuel from countries that do not completely or uniformly account for carbon losses in forests when trees are cut down to be burned for energy. 

The result? Massive quantities of “missing emissions”: there is carbon dioxide going up into the atmosphere that the UK simply pretends doesn’t exist.    

Unlike some other EU countries, the UK is in the enviable position of having affordable and low-risk alternatives to burning wood in old coal plants. 

In fact, its solar and wind projects are cheap and getting cheaper, and its offshore wind prices have set records. 

Diverse technologies

The UK’s Committee on Climate Change lamented that the clean energy solutions the UK needs do exist, but those in charge don’t back them. The committee concluded that: “Low-cost, low-risk options to reduce emissions,” such as onshore wind, “are not being supported by Government.” 

New analysis from Vivid Economics and Imperial College supports this critique. It suggests that not only is biomass more expensive than solar and wind, but unnecessary to ensure the reliability of a smart, low-carbon UK electricity grid. 

In place of burning wood, the UK could de-carbonize electricity sector emissions by 2030 relying almost entirely on new investments in wind, solar, and smart resources, such as battery storage, demand response, and interconnection with Europe. 

The government should focus on delivering this mix of technologies, not on delivering biomass. 

Public outrage

The devastation of forests portrayed by Dispatchesshows the toll to our planet from the UK Government’s recklessdecision to subsidize this fake clean energy. 

The program was particularly powerful because the biomass industry’s ability to traffic on a “green” image depends on people remaining in the dark about its true costs. 

Duncan Brack, a former energy official and author of the Chatham House’s biomass report, told Dispatches:“If the public understood that we are using public money raised from electricity bill payers to subsidize the clear-cutting of American forests and increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere, then they would be outraged”.

As more people speak out against biomass, pressure builds for policymakers to pull their head out of the sand, acknowledge the mistake they have made, and correct their course.

There have been glimmers of good news, such as a recent decision to increase efficiency requirements for combined heat and power plants burning biomass. 

Destructive policies

Claire Perry, minister for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, would still prefer we believe industry fabrications instead of our own lying eyes. 

Perry’s complicity in this scam is particularly troubling. She presents the UK as a global “leader” in tackling climate change by substituting dirty coal with equally dirty biomass. 

The reality of these destructive policies can no longer be ignored. It’s time for UK citizens to demand that Theresa May’s government become the climate leader it claims to be and end payouts to this dirty industry. 

Choosing to ignore the overwhelming evidence will leave the UK isolated, while other countries scale-up genuine low-carbon energy solutions, like energy efficiency, storage, solar power and wind power. 

This Author

Sasha Stashwick is a senior advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

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