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As wind power falls out of favour with Conservatives, coal power stations are being converted to handle biomass with generous subsidies from the government.
This is bad news for forests, the climate and anyone who’s forced to live near power stations or wood processing plants. Within the UK, companies have already published plans to burn a staggering 70 million tonnes of wood annually. This is seven times more than the total wood produced in the UK each year. Most of it will be sourced from biodiverse and carbon-rich forests in the southern US and Canada – forests that are being rapidly clearcut and converted to monoculture plantations.
Pellets from whole trees are the only possible feedstock for coal power stations such as Drax. Drax, based in North Yorkshire, plans to burn pellets made from nearly 16 million tonnes of wood annually. Other types of biomass aren’t available in the same quantities and, even if they were, would corrode Drax’s boilers, according to the company.
Burning wood emits more CO2 per unit of electricity than coal and will raise global carbon levels even further than business as usual. Studies show that it will take decades, if not centuries, for new trees to re-absorb that carbon – if forests are able and allowed to regrow at all.
The ‘Biomess Awards’ were a satirical response by Biofuelwatch to an industry conference held in London in April. Without a hint of irony, the Argus European Biomass Trading conference was handing out awards for ‘outstanding individual contribution’ to the industry – and ‘sustainability’. These were won by none other than Drax CEO Dorothy Thompson and one of Drax’s main pellet suppliers, the US-based Enviva. These companies have been shown to source wood from clearcut ancient swamp forests in the southern US.
Hundreds of people voted online for the ‘biggest biomass baddie’. At our protest outside the Argus conference, we named and shamed the ‘winners’. First prize went to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), second to Drax power station and third to Green Investment Bank.
These three enjoy a close relationship. DECC has guaranteed long-term government subsidies to Drax – to the tune of £442 million annually – for Drax to convert two out of its six units to biomass, which would entail burning 11 million tonnes per year. The Treasury has topped up the deal with a £75 million public loan guarantee, and the state-owned Green Investment Bank is loaning another £50 million. Such generous support hasn’t stopped Drax from threatening to sue the government for not guaranteeing a further £252 million to convert a third unit to biomass. Instead of phasing out coal, DECC’s support allows the power station to avoid closure under EU sulphur dioxide regulations. Drax can go on burning more than 3.6 million tonnes of coal per year, rather than none at all.
Since 2010, DECC has been talking about new sustainability and greenhouse gas standards for biomass, but it has yet to introduce any. The proposed standards, over the past few years, have been watered down so much as to become farcical. For example, the department’s chief scientific advisor has been working on a ‘biomass carbon calculator’, based on peer-reviewed findings about carbon impacts, but DECC has made clear that this work will be ignored until at least 2027. Instead, according to its own impact assessment, DECC will put forward carbon counting rules that allow ‘all sources of wood’ to be classed as ‘low carbon’.
Rules for biomass have been delayed again, this time to April 2015. But new standards won’t help our cause. In fact they’re usually a boon to energy companies. The mere fact that DECC has a policy on sustainability has been used to stop local planning authorities from refusing biomass power stations on sustainability grounds. These standards will actually close doors to campaigners.
The result of all this is that forests are being trashed, CO2 emissions are increasing and communities are being forced to live next to polluting infrastructure they don’t want – all under the guise of clean, green energy generation. Ultimately, without DECC’s generous subsidy rules for big biomass there would be no large-scale biomass electricity in the UK, and no clearcutting of forests to fuel it.