Last updated: July 2013
Converting coal stations to biomass
Biofuelwatch reports on the ultimate greenwash - replacing one climate disaster with another.
Under the guise of ‘renewable energy’, burning wood in power stations has become a massive growth industry in the UK – so big that current plans for power station conversions will see six times as much wood as the UK produces in a year being burnt. By far the greatest demand is coming from power stations that are currently coal-fired. Planning consent has already been granted to five coal power stations to convert, either partly or completely, to biomass.
What is biomass? Well, you’ve probably heard of biofuels – crops such as palm oil that are being grown on stolen land to feed cars, destroying rainforests and endangering orangutans. Biomass is the solid equivalent, but instead of being used in cars, it is used to generate electricity in power stations. Biomass has a green image and gets away with being called ‘renewable energy’, but this is far from the truth.
Logging the world’s forests
Burning biomass on such a big scale has dire implications. So far, most wood pellets imported to the UK have come from Canada and the southern US, with some sourced from the Baltic States, Russia, Portugal and South Africa. In these countries native forests rich in wildlife and carbon are being destroyed, and the rate of destruction is expected to become much worse as demand grows.
Energy firms are already expanding operations in North America, with RWE, E.ON and Drax all investing heavily in large new pellet plants. In the longer term, energy companies are looking at imports from Brazil, West and Central Africa and other regions of the global South, where trees grow faster and land is cheaper. This will mean more displacement of communities and ecosystem destruction to make way for monoculture tree plantations.
Harming people around the world
So-called ‘biomass sustainability standards’ are so flawed and ineffective that companies can essentially burn wood from anywhere in the world and receive subsidies for it. Companies usually go for the cheapest growing land they can find, meaning more land grabbing from some of the world’s poorest people and rising food prices as land is diverted away from growing food to feed power stations.
In the UK, communities living close to power stations burning biomass will be affected by continuing high levels of pollution. Instead of closing down in the near future, as many of the UK’s coal-fired power stations had planned, burning biomass will let them stay open for many more years.
A climate change disaster
Power stations burning wood emit up to 50% more carbon dioxide than those burning coal. Companies and policy makers ignore this carbon, claiming that biomass is green because new trees grow back in the place of ones which have been cut down. But it takes decades to grow a mature tree and just minutes to burn one, creating a ‘carbon debt’. Further still, when forests are destroyed and turned into monoculture plantations, much of the carbon simply stays in the atmosphere. Such a carbon spike at this point in time is exactly what we don’t need if we want to have any hope of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.
Time to take DRAXtic action
Drax in North Yorkshire is the UK’s largest and dirtiest coal-fired power station. It is converting half of its capacity to burning biomass, making it the biggest biomass-burning power station in the world.
Drax is getting some good PR for “going green”, but the reality is that switching to biomass will allow Drax to keep running (and polluting) long into the future. So don’t believe the hype.
Generous subsidies are also fuelling big biomass – for example, Drax received £672 million for biomass co-firing in one year alone. These subsidies take the form of Renewable Obligations Certificates (ROCs), and are funded through the compulsory purchase of them by energy companies which use ‘non-renewable’ sources of energy. The added cost of these ROC purchases will inevitably be passed on to the bill-payer by the company, despite this being a time of rising fuel poverty.
Drax has also recently secured a £100 million loan towards the financing of its conversion from the Green Investment Bank (GIB). The GIB was set up by the UK Government to help finance so-called environmentally friendly projects, but its largest investment to date has been in big biomass. It is expected to channel another £500 million towards bioenergy projects, a massive contribution towards the financing of this quickly expanding industry.
Biofuelwatch are running an e-alert to demand that the Green Investment Bank stop funding big biomass and invite you to take part.