Britain backs bio-mass energy in race to hit emissions targetsBurning renewable trees promises carbon-free power – but it may not stack up
ByRachel Millard2 March 2020 • 6:00am
Burning wood chips for power is controversial CREDIT: Daniel Lewis
Rising and falling with the tides of the Humber Estuary, two giant mechanical arms work non-stop to empty the red cargo ships that have sailed across the Atlantic and through the North Sea to Immingham.
Wood chips from the forests of Louisiana and Mississippi are unloaded at 2,300 tons per hour to be whisked by train to Drax power station in Selby, and burned to create electricity for millions of homes.
At a time when the Government wants to plant millions of trees each year to suck carbon out of the atmosphere and is banning the use of wet wood in stoves, burning wood to power homes feels more counter-intuitive than ever.
Yet the use of low-carbon bio-energy –such as crops for vehicle fuel or wood chips for boilers – has been growing in a shift from fossil fuels. The Renewable Energy Association says bio-energy accounts for 7.4pc of the UK’s energy consumption.
The popularity of such fuels is likely to grow in the race to hit the government’s binding target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Bio-energy is particularly attractive given its alluring prospect of generating “negative” carbon emissions, as policy makers look for ways to hit Paris climate agreement targets. In the UK, that prospect might get a boost in next week’s Budget. “We are going to have to use all the low-carbon technologies available,” says Simon Virley, KPMG head of energy.
“That includes bio-energy with carbon capture and storage which, with sustainable sources and proper monitoring, can deliver negative emissions, thereby potentially offsetting some harder to treat sectors in the economy, like agriculture or aviation.”
UK energy mix
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In the third quarter of 2019
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Despite emitting carbon at the smokestack, bio-mass and other bio-fuels have, broadly speaking, sequestered that carbon in their lifetime and will be regrown. So, if you can also remove the emissions at the smokestack through the emerging technology of carbon capture and storage (CCS), they will have sequestered more than they emit.
As far as individual countries’ and companies’ carbon ledgers are concerned, any benefit also rests on the complex system for counting carbon from bio-mass, which critics say creates perverse incentives.
Under guidelines set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, carbon from bio-mass is reported upon harvesting rather than at burning. Hence Drax’s emissions are counted as zero at the smokestack.
The UK Office for National Statistics says emissions from bio-mass are not counted in the total emissions of the country where the fuel is used, if they have been counted at harvest. That helps the UK, which imported 7.8 million tons of wood pellets in 2018. How savings from carbon capture are counted is also not straightforward.
Despite complications, the Government backed bio-mass for power production in generous subsidies for Drax which are set to run out in 2027, helping it switch from coal which it is set to stop using next year.
Amid the hopes for negative emissions, there is speculation the Conservatives may be about to announce a lump sum for the UK’s first CCS system in the Budget, having pledged £800m for the technology in their manifesto. CCS has failed to get off the ground in the UK not least as it is difficult and expensive, and is likely to require ongoing subsidies.
A biomass furnace at Drax power station CREDIT: Daniel Lewis
A previous Conservative government broke a manifesto promise by pulling a £1bn grant for the technology in 2015, but the current administration looks set to make good on its £800m promise as it tries to boost northern areas that helped it win the election.
Drax is working with firms such as National Grid and Equinor on a CCS network in the Humber. Carbon emissions from Drax and other polluters in the area might be piped to and stashed in depleted oil fields in the North Sea, providing a blueprint for other CCS systems in the UK and abroad.
Yet just as the rush to burn wood chips for power is controversial, so is the siren call of negative emissions. The Committee on Climate Change, the Government’s independent climate advisors, sees a role for CCS as it helps make the most of harvested bio-mass.
“The level to which sustainable low-carbon bio-mass production can be increased is finite, given land constraints and competition from other uses (e.g. food production),” it notes in a report. “It is therefore important to pursue ways of using this finite resource that maximise its contribution to emissions reduction.”
In its models of how to reach net zero, it sees a scenario in which bio-energy produces about 10pc of UK energy consumption in 2050, including 6pc of electricity, with CCS removing about 51 metric tonnes of its carbon emissions.
Yet there are also warnings of over-reliance globally. In February 2019, the European Academies Science Advisory Council – which includes the Royal Society – warned that the combination “remains associated with substantial risks and uncertainties, both over its environmental impact and ability to achieve net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.”
The Chatham House think tank echoed that and warned the use of bio-energy with CCS at the scale hoped for globally to meet net zero “would consume land on a scale comparable to half that currently taken up by global cropland, entailing massive land-use change, potentially endangering food security and biodiversity.”
“The danger” it said in a report in January, “... is that policy makers are sleepwalking towards bio-energy with carbon capture simply because most models incorporate it.
“Or, almost as bad, it may be that they are simply ignoring the need for any meaningful action on carbon dioxide removal as a whole.”
Drax in the dock over worker safety concernsPower producer faces criminal prosecution over allegations that employees' health and safety is being endangered
ByRachel Millard2 September 2021 • 2:43pm
The owner of a biomass power station key to Boris Johnson’s net-zero ambitions is facing criminal prosecution over allegations that employees' health and safety is being endangered.
Drax, the FTSE 250 power company, has been taken to court by The Health and Safety Executive due to concerns that dust from wood pellets burned at its site poses a risk to workers’ health, Sky News reported.
Drax produces about 5pc of the country’s electricity from its Yorkshire power plant, where it has converted turbines to run on woody biomass instead of coal to cut carbon emissions.
Burning the pellets, much of which are shipped in from forests in the US, does produce carbon emissions at the smokestack, but these are counted as neutral in the UK under international carbon accounting rules.
In 2019, Drax was granted £790m in Government subsidies for generating renewable electricity, with a further £820m awarded in 2020, according to think-tank Ember.
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The company is due to appear at Leeds Magistrate Court on November 30 to face two charges under health and safety laws. The HSE has also accused Drax of breaching risk assessment obligations before allowing employees to work with potentially "hazardous substances".
A Drax spokesman said: “We can confirm that we have received notice of legal action from the Health and Safety Executive in relation to wood dust at Drax Power Station.
“As this is an ongoing legal issue we cannot provide any further information at this time. The health, safety and wellbeing of our colleagues is a priority for Drax.”
Drax is now seeking Government support to add carbon capture systems to its turbines. According to the company, this will remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it produces, because carbon dioxide absorbed in the biomass is not released and the biomass is re-grown.
Supporters argue this can help the UK reach its goal to slash carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, as it can help offset emissions from sectors which struggle to decarbonise, such as shipping and aviation.
Burning biomass for energy is controversial, however, with critics questioning whether it puts too much strain on land use and whether trees are re-grown quickly enough.
Carbon capture systems are also not yet in place at scale in the UK, although several companies are investing heavily in their development.
Drax made £52m profit during the first half of 2021, increasing its dividend by 10pc to 7.5 cents per share.
The HSE has been contacted for comment.
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