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Scientists Attack Biomass Power Subsidy

Biomass, the scientists fight back

We wrote recently about the travails of Drax, the UK’s largest coal generating power station and how its desire to become the UK’s biggest renewable plant had been dealt a blow by the government’s decision not to fully back its redevelopment to a biomass plant.

We also discussed the bad press that the biomass process was beginning to receive, whether in the Drax AGM or Greenpeace blog pages.

Now the US has waded in. This is interesting as the US and Canada is the source of the wood pellets that are burnt as an alternative to coal in Drax’s biomass plant.

The anti biomass lobby is gaining traction as senior US scientists such as the energy adviser to the US State Department have joined together to caution that the push for wood pellets to replace coal will not reduce carbon emissions and will threaten the sustainability of forests.

The scientists have not only directed their ire on Drax but also on the UK government who, though not covering all Drax’s requests for subsidy, are providing £200m in 2014 for its renovation into a biomass plant.

The scientists highlight that Drax will need a minimum of 7m tonnes of pellets each year to fulfil the needs of its 3 converted boilers. If there full plans came to fruition this demand would be considerably more, and it’s this volumetric issue that is giving cause for concern. The burning question they raise is, just how much waste wood is available before healthy forests begin to be sacrificed?

The letter to Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey said:

“Demand for wood pellets in the UK and Europe is fuelled by misguided energy policies, which incorrectly assume that burning wood will lower carbon emissions and help address climate change.”

“These policies appear to subscribe to the wood pellet and power industry claim that burning wood is a carbon neutral process because new trees will eventually absorb and store the carbon that was released when wood is burnt”

Indeed the volume of wood exported from the US has trebled in three years with the consultancy Wood Resources International claiming:

“The expansion, which is entirely driven by demand for biomass in Europe, has increased pellet exports from 800,000 tons in 2011 to 2.9m tons in 2013”.

Amongst this the UK is the largest importer, with Drax at the centre of the demand.

Drax claim that the wood they use does reduce carbon emissions as they utilise offcuts and discarded wood waste rather than healthy trees:

“We are naturally at the low value end of the spectrum and that means it’s typically residues”

But this is not all, Drax is taking additional steps in order to ensure the “environmental integrity” of its supplies by building two of its own wood pellet plants, in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Whilst the scientists support Drax’s assertion that utilising offcuts and waste can aid growth and can ultimately be beneficial for the long term development of forests, they remain concerned about the ‘what next’ impact of economic thinking.

Their concern centres on the fact that the vast majority of forests in the subject areas are privately owned and are not subject to regulatory or environmental safeguards.

Daniel Kammen, professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley said:

“The problem …. is the economic drivers….. the science and the business are in conflict here.”

The fear is that as European demand for wood pellets grows so will the willingness to exploit previously off limit resources and that means wood pellets sourced from native forests rather than waste.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change department said the UK government was committed to using bioenergy wisely and had recently strengthened standards, saying:

“We are also gathering evidence for our next bioenergy strategy and will review and tighten greenhouse gas standards that will apply to new biomass generation from April 2019”

It is a curious situation that a coal fired power station, and a significant one at that, has taken a long term view on sustainability, dovetailing its on-going operations in supplying 7% of the UK’s electricity needs with transformation of their generation sources.

In doing this it has met with opposition from environmental campaigners, fallen foul of government subsidy handouts and now faces the wrath of the scientific lobby.

This is despite the fact that all agree that the current methodology being used to source the wood pellets are environmentally beneficial.

The debate instead is over the ‘what if’ of future forest exploitation.

This represents an anomaly given that foresight and planning has been one element that has been severely lacking in the debate on energy security and sustainability. For a business such as Drax, who have done just that, to be held back and potentially stymied by such actions is a concern.

It is difficult to not have sympathy with Drax’s position, yes safeguards are needed to prevent exploitation, however the approach of Drax and the potential benefit it could bring should not be thrown away because of fears for future less scrupulous operators.

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