Drax is also the world’s largest biomass power station, burning pellets made from 13 million tonnes of trees in 2016. Just 2% of this wood came from the UK, and the UK’s annual wood production across all industries is 11 million tonnes. It is impossible to imagine how those who champion Drax can think it can ever be considered sustainable with such a heavy reliance on wood felled elsewhere.
Drax’s wood fuel
Drax claims that by burning wood instead of coal, it is reducing our carbon footprint because wood is a ‘carbon neutral’ fuel. This is because it is assumed that the carbon emitted will be reabsorbed by new trees planted to replace those burnt.
However, burning trees releases carbon into the atmosphere immediately – more per unit of electricity generated than coal – and any new trees planted won’t reach maturity and absorb the same amount of carbon for decades, if ever. At a time when we must rapidly reduce our carbon emissions to limit the worst extremes of climate change, it makes no sense to create such a ‘carbon debt’.
Over half the wood burnt at Drax comes from the southern United States, including wood sourced by the pellet company Enviva from biodiverse forests. These important ecosystems are being destroyed to meet the demand for wood pellets in Europe. Some of these forests have been designated by the IUCN as ‘global biodiversity hotspots’, and provide habitat to bears and a variety of bird and amphibian species. Drax is Enviva’s largest customer.
Wood pellet manufacturers claim to use ‘waste wood’, but others claim there is not enough waste wood to meet demand and some studies have shown that pellet plants in the US source about 75% whole trees. Organisations such as the Dogwood Alliance have documented whole trees being taken to Enviva’s pellet mills.
Subsidised climate change
In 2016, Drax received almost £1.5 million a day in ‘renewable energy’ subsidies from the UK government. This is likely to increase, as Drax has now been awarded a Contract for Difference – an even more lucrative subsidy.
These subsidies are paid out of a surcharge on your electricity bill. At a time when 6.59 million households in the UK are considered ‘fuel poor’ (spending more than 10% of household income on heating), paying power companies to burn wood is a disastrous waste of money. Drax relies on these subsidies; without them, it would already have had to shut down.
Drax has recently acquired four planned new power stations, thus adding a third form of dirty energy to its portfolio: gas. As a fossil fuel, gas has no role to play in decarbonising our economy; if Drax were serious about its concern for the climate, it would not be investing in more fossil fuels.
The real way forward
We need to rapidly reduce our carbon emissions now, and burning wood in power stations has no part to play in this. Instead of subsidising such false solutions, we should be funding energy-saving measures to reduce our demand, as well as supporting real renewables such as wind and solar power.
Biofuelwatch and our allies will continue to resist Drax, and all unsustainable biomass.