PublicationNewspaper Article Scientists attack biomass power subsidy

May 4, 2014
Publication Type:
Newspaper Article


Some of the most dis­tin­guished sci­en­tists in the US have writ­ten to UK energy sec­re­tary Ed Davey, urg­ing him to aban­don the government’s “mis­guided” sub­si­dies for com­pa­nies burn­ing wood pel­lets to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity, such as the Drax plant in Yorkshire.

The biol­o­gist, Dr E.O. Wil­son and Pro­fes­sor Daniel Kam­men, an energy adviser to the US State Depart­ment, are among 60 sig­na­to­ries to a let­ter seen by the FT. It warns that UK energy poli­cies are stim­u­lat­ing an “explo­sive growth” in wood pel­let mills that will not reduce car­bon emis­sions and which threat­ens impor­tant native forests.

This is a fresh com­pli­ca­tion for Drax, which is likely to receive around £200m of sub­si­dies this year for con­vert­ing part of its coal power plant to burn wood pel­lets imported from the US instead.

The so-​​called bio­mass sub­si­dies will help the UK meet EU tar­gets requir­ing the bloc to get 20 per cent of its energy from renew­able sources by 2020.

One of the biggest coal power plants in Europe, Drax will need at least 7m tonnes of wood pel­lets a year once it has con­verted three of its six boil­ers to wood. It is still con­sid­er­ing plans to con­vert a fourth, mean­ing its annual pel­let demand could exceed 9m tonnes and its annual sub­si­dies could reach £940m, accord­ing to Lon­don energy ana­lyst Roland Vetter.

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,” says the let­ter to Mr Davey, writ­ten by Dr William Schlesinger of New York’s Cary Insti­tute of Ecosys­tem Studies.

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.”

Drax does not claim its wood-​​to-​​power con­ver­sion is entirely car­bon neu­tral, but argues over­all emis­sions are lower because its fuel comes from sus­tain­ably man­aged forests, where new trees absorb car­bon faster than older ones.

The com­pany says its pel­lets mainly come from wood waste such as saw­dust, off­cuts or for­est thin­nings, rather than large healthy trees that absorb the car­bon diox­ide emis­sions, which are warm­ing the atmos­phere to poten­tially risky levels.

We are nat­u­rally at the low value end of the spec­trum and that means it’s typ­i­cally residues,” said Drax spokes­woman Melanie Wedgbury.

Wood pel­let exports from south­ern US states where Drax is get­ting most of its fuel have more than tripled in the last three years, accord­ing to Wood Resources Inter­na­tional, a Seattle-​​based research consultancy.

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,” WRI said in a state­ment. The UK is the biggest importer.

But the sci­en­tists behind the let­ter to Mr Davey say forests are being threat­ened as a result of what they say are flawed assump­tions about the envi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits of burn­ing wood instead of fos­sil fuels such as coal.

I think the EU con­ceived these poli­cies in good faith,” Dr Schlesinger told the FT. “But they didn’t think about what would hap­pen out­side the bor­ders of the EU”.

Drax is build­ing two of its own pel­let plants, in Louisiana and Mis­sis­sippi, to assure the envi­ron­men­tal integrity of its supplies.

Using off­takes from forests such as thin­nings can make other trees grow more, which is ben­e­fi­cial, said one of the letter’s sig­na­to­ries, Daniel Kam­men, pro­fes­sor of energy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berkeley.

The prob­lem, though, is the eco­nomic dri­vers,” he said, explain­ing demand for wood pel­lets can lead to greater har­vest­ing of stand­ing forests. “The sci­ence and the busi­ness are in con­flict here.”

The sci­en­tists’ let­ter to Mr Davey says nearly 90 per cent of south­east­ern US forests are pri­vately owned and there are few reg­u­la­tory safe­guards to ensure har­vested trees are replaced by sus­tain­ably man­aged new forests.

In addi­tion, mount­ing Euro­pean demand for pel­lets means some exporters are now eye­ing wood from impor­tant native forests, it says, and there is grow­ing evi­dence that trees are the main source of the wood pel­lets exported to the UK from the south­ern US, rather than wood waste.

Euro­pean envi­ron­men­tal groups are also anx­ious to see a change in the UK’s poli­cies. “The sci­en­tific evi­dence on this is stack­ing up and sci­en­tists are frus­trated no one is lis­ten­ing to them,” said Ken­neth Richter of Friends of the Earth in London.

The energy depart­ment said the UK gov­ern­ment was com­mit­ted to using bioen­ergy wisely and had recently strength­ened standards.

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,” a spokes­woman said.


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