It sounds like a villain in The Avengers series.
We first saw it when visiting my niece in Yorkshire a few years back. But we did not know then that this huge, redundant coal-fired power station outside the historic town of Selby had been re-purposed as Britain’s largest biomass plant. But now, it seems, everybody is talking about it.
Drax has been touted as a pioneer of clean, green, renewable, carbon-neutral and sustainable power, and is one of villains of the documentary BURNED: Are Trees the New Coal?, an excellent but scary film made by North Carolina’s Dogwood Alliance about the burning of wood on an industrial scale for energy. It tells the little-known story of the accelerating destruction of forests for fuel, probing the policy loopholes, huge subsidies, and blatant green-washing of the burgeoning biomass power industry.
BURNED describes how the European Union’s desperation to reduce carbon emissions and dependence on fossil fuels kicked off a demand for wood pellets for burning to generate electricity that in turn created an industry. Promising clean, green, renewable, carbon-neutral and sustainable power, it came for what it called forest waste, and then it came for the forest itself.
The film exposes a green-wash built on shonky accounting and corporate conjuring, corporate deception and misrepresentation, complicit economists and regulators, and semantic sleight of hand.
It reveals how an accounting error determined biomass burning to be carbon neutral, whilst a mechanism to prevent counting carbon twice became a rule that carbon wasn’t counted at all. Indeed, it was declared that the burning of biomass was “instant carbon sequestration” whilst emissions exuding from the new-age power stations were actually “biogenic carbon” – green power!
And it exposes the hoodwinking of ordinary folk in economically depressed areas who now suffer the environmental and health consequences of born-again power plants that become, in reality, incinerators.
PLEASE WATCH THIS IMPORTANT FILM NOW — free-streaming via LinkTV (30-minute concise edition) HERE
Coming to a forest near you!
In Australia and elsewhere, the general public, forest industry nostalgists, conservative politicians, and, even, many environmentalists believe that we are saving forests from destruction by using plantations for jobs and construction timber, when in fact the former are few, supplanted by hi-tech mechanization, and latter is destined for pulp mills and power plants.
But maybe we are at last wising up.
Since the widespread distribution of BURNED, the true scale of the biofuel greenwash is being given the publicity it needs. The true colours of rebadged, born-again plants like Drax are now revealed for all the world to see. And they are not green!
As I write, a cargo ship is approaching Ireland’s green shores laden with timber from faraway foreign forests to be consumed in re-engineered peat-fired plants as part of a “co-fuel” trial. The Irish environmental organisation An Taisce (pronounced An Taysh) – essentially, the country’s national trust – has sounded a clarion call with respect to shipping what is officially designated “sustainably sourced biomass” (of course it is!) in a diesel-powered vessel halfway across the world from a country that is already facing dire environmental problems – and no, we’re not talking about some impoverished third world nation, but economically, technologically, intellectually and socially well-to-do Australia!
Australians too are now on the case.
In a recent article, environmentalist Francis Pike shone a strong light on Australia’s disingenuous complicity in what is indisputably a global greenwash. She writes: “the fairy-tale that burning wood instead of coal is carbon neutral continues to wreak havoc on the world’s extant forests … For a long time, the falsity of carbon emission accounting for forest bio-energy has been apparently invisible to many policymakers”. But, she continues, “the fairy-tale could soon end, taking with it the myth that the industrial logging of the world’s native forests has been and is now “sustainable”.
She, like the Dogwood Alliance, calls out the linguistic contortions and the dubious accounting: “Corporatised state forest agencies and helpful state environmental protection agencies have created industry-friendly definitions, definitions of residue that can accommodate whole logs. They might be called pulp logs – native forest trees of various “unwanted” species not allowed to grow to maturity”.
And whilst we in northern New South Wales might be alarmed about re-tooled plants like Drax and those in Ireland’s Midlands, Pike reminds us that something wicked this way comes: “ … whole log “residues” can be chipped and transported to power stations or transported and then chipped at the power station, as with New South Wales power stations at Vales Point on the Central Coast and Cape Byron in the north. Native forest biomass burnt with or without coal or something else, props up emission intensive enterprises with its “carbon neutral, renewable energy, subsidy attracting” quality. Or the forest biomass is exported, as pellets, chip or whole trees”. (Activists are already protesting at the Condong plant at Cape Byron).
Australian forests are now being actively marketed as an export commodity for combustion in Asia, most notably China, and to a lesser extent, Japan – not to mention, of course, Saint Patrick’s Fair Isle.
Queensland Commodity Exports Pty, Ltd, a subsidiary of wood-chip behemoth Midway, a leading supplier of wood-fibre to the Asian markets, is currently sourcing Forest Stewardship Certification (FSC) certified timber (a much-prized but highly suspect ‘green tick of approval’) from northern NSW – including all of Bellingen’s plantation forests, and pulping it on the wharf at Port Brisbane.
BELLINGEN BEWARE — vast areas of our closely surrounding public forests have been reclassified as ‘low quality’ for wood-chip export … the bio-fuel industry will be coming for us next!
As Bob Dylan once sang, “It’s all just a dream, babe, a vacuum, a scheme, babe, that sucks you into feelin’ like this”.
Here is some further the reading on Drax and the Irish trials:
- Drax’ Bizarre Tree-burning Climate Solution
- Creative Carbon Accounting – how industry and government make burning wood look like climate solution
- Bord na Móna, An Taisce clash over biomass importation
- Why Is Bord na Mona adding more fuel to the fire?
The bonfire of insanity: Woodland shipped 3,800 miles to burn in Drax, emitting more CO2 for a cleaner and greener Britain!
David Rose, The Mail on Sunday, 16th March 2014
On a perfect spring day in the coastal forest of North Carolina I hike along a nature trail – a thread of dry gravel between the pools of the Roanoke river backwaters. A glistening otter dives for lunch just a few feet away.
Majestic trees soar straight and tall, their roots sunk deep in the swampland: maples, sweetgums and several kinds of oak. A pileated woodpecker – the world’s largest species, with a wingspan of almost 2ft – whistles as it flutters across the canopy. There the leaves are starting to bud, 100ft above the ground. The trees seem to stretch to the horizon: a serene and timeless landscape.
But North Carolina’s ‘bottomland’ forest is being cut down in swathes, and much of it pulped and turned into wood pellets – so Britain can keep its lights on.
The UK is committed by law to a radical shift to renewable energy. By 2020, the proportion of Britain’s electricity generated from ‘renewable’ sources is supposed to almost triple to 30 per cent, with more than a third of that from what is called ‘biomass’.
So our biggest power station, the leviathan Drax plant near Selby in North Yorkshire, is switching from dirty, non-renewable coal. Biomass is far more expensive, but the consumer helps the process by paying subsidies via levies on energy bills.
That’s where North Carolina’s forests come in. They are being reduced to pellets in a gargantuan pulping process at local factories, then shipped across the Atlantic from a purpose-built dock at Chesapeake Port, just across the state line in Virginia.
Drax and Enviva insist this practice is ‘sustainable’. But though it is entirely driven by the desire to curb greenhouse gas emissions, a broad alliance of US and international environmentalists argue it is increasing, not reducing them.
In fact, Burdett admits, Drax’s wood-fuelled furnaces actually produce three per cent more carbon dioxide (CO2) than coal – and well over twice as much as gas: 870g per megawatt hour (MW/hr) is belched out by wood, compared to just 400g for gas.
Then there’s the extra CO2 produced by manufacturing the pellets and transporting them 3,800 miles. According to Burdett, when all that is taken into account, using biomass for generating power produces 20 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions than coal.
And meanwhile, say the environmentalists, the forest’s precious wildlife habitat is being placed in jeopardy.
Drax concedes that ‘when biomass is burned, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere’. Its defence is that trees – unlike coal or gas – are renewable because they can grow again, and that when they do, they will neutralise the carbon in the atmosphere by ‘breathing’ it in – or in technical parlance, ‘sequestering’ it.
So Drax claims that burning wood ‘significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared with coal-fired generation’ – by as much, Burdett says, as 80 per cent.
These claims are questionable. For one thing, some trees in the ‘bottomland’ woods can take more than 100 years to regrow. But for Drax, this argument has proven beneficial and lucrative.
Only a few years ago, as a coal-only plant, Drax was Europe’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, and was often targeted by green activists. Now it boasts of its ‘environmental leadership position’, saying it is the biggest renewable energy plant in the world.
It also gets guaranteed profits from the Government’s green energy subsidies. Last year, these amounted to £62.5 million, paid by levies on consumers’ bills. This is set to triple by 2016 as Drax increases its biomass capacity.
In the longer term, the Government has decreed that customers will pay £105 per MW/hr for Drax’s biomass electricity – £10 more than for onshore wind energy, and £15 more than for power from the controversial new nuclear plant to be built at Hinkley Point in Somerset. The current ‘normal’ market electricity price is just £50 per MW/hr.
Mr Burdett admitted: ‘Our whole business case is built on subsidy, like the rest of the renewable energy industry. We are simply responding to Government policy.’
Company spokesman Matt Willey added: ‘We’re a power company. We’ve been told to take coal out of the equation. What would you have us do – build a dirty great windfarm?’
Meanwhile, there are other costs, less easily quantifiable.
‘These are some of our most valuable forests,’ said my trail companion, Derb Carter, director of the Southern Environmental Law Centre in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. ‘Your government’s Department for Energy and Climate Change claims what’s happening is sustainable, and carbon neutral. But it’s not. What you’re actually doing is wrecking the environment in the name of saving the planet.
After our hike through the forest, Mr Carter and I drove to a nearby airfield, where we boarded a plane. From 2,000ft up, the forest spread beneath us. Soon, however, we reached an oblong wedge, an open wound in the landscape. It was a recent ‘clear cut’ where every tree had been removed, leaving only mud, water and a few stumps. Clear cuts are the standard means of harvesting these forests, and this one covered about 35 acres.
Enviva yesterday confirmed that some of its wood was turned into pellets for Drax.
In the next 10 minutes, we flew over at least a dozen such holes in the tree cover. Finally a looming smokestack appeared up ahead: Enviva’s pellet plant at Ahoskie. To one side lay the material that provides the plant’s input: a huge, circular pile of logs: tens of thousands of them, each perhaps 30 or 40ft long. In the middle was a heavy-duty crane. It swivelled round and grabbed bunches of the logs as if they were matchsticks, to feed them into the plant’s machines. Later, we inspected the plant on the ground. It’s clear that many of the logs are not branches, but trunks: as Carter observed, they displayed the distinctive flaring which swampland trees often have at their base.
Here the story becomes murky. At Drax, Burdett said that in making pellets, Enviva used only ‘thinnings, branches, bentwood . . . we are left with the rubbish, the residue from existing forestry operations. It’s a waste or by-products industry.’ He insisted: ‘We don’t actually chop whole trees down.’ But looking at the plant at Ahoskie, Carter said: I just don’t get this claim that Drax doesn’t use whole trees. Most of what you’re seeing here is whole trees.’
Pressed by The Mail on Sunday, Enviva yesterday admitted it does use whole trees in its pellet process. But according to spokeswoman Elizabeth Woodworth, it only pulps those deemed ‘unsuitable for saw-milling because of small size, disease or other defects’.
She claimed such trees, no more than 26 inches in diameter, make up a quarter of the wood processed at Ahoskie. Another 35 per cent comes from limbs and the top parts of trunks whose lower sections went to saw mills. To put it another way: 60 per cent of the wood cut by the loggers who supply Enviva is turned into pellets.
The firm, she added, was ‘committed to sustainable forestry… replacing coal with sustainably produced wood pellets reduces lifecycle emissions of carbon dioxide by 74 to 90 per cent.’
How fast do these forests, once cut, really regrow?
Clear-cut wetlands cannot be replanted. They will start to sprout again naturally quite quickly, but according to Clayton Altizer of the North Carolina forest service: ‘For bottomland sites, these types of forests are typically on a 60 to 100-year cycle of growth depending on the soil fertility.’ Other experts say it could easily take more than 100 years.
That means it will be a long time before all the carbon emitted from Drax can be re-absorbed. For decades, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will be higher than it would have been if Drax still burnt only coal.
Drax’s Nigel Burdett yesterday admitted he did not know how long a North Carolina clear-cut bottomland swathe would take to regrow, but insisted this simply doesn’t matter. What counted, he said, was not the areas which had been cut, but the whole region from which the pellets were sourced.
Drax’s website implies unmistakeably that biomass deserves its ‘carbon neutral’ status because the wood cut for pellets regrows. But Mr Burdett said: ‘The rate at which it re-grows is irrelevant. The crucial issue is how much there is across the whole catchment area.’ He said that in North Carolina, as in other southern states, more wood is growing than being cut so the ‘sustainable’ claim is justified.
There is an obvious objection to this: the forests would be growing still faster, and absorbing more CO2, if they weren’t being cut down.
Burdett’s argument gets short shrift from conservationists.
Danna Smith, director of North Carolina’s Dogwood Alliance, said the pellet industry increases the pressure to ‘over-harvest’ forests, as landowners know they have a guaranteed market for material which they could not otherwise sell: ‘It adds to the value they get from clear-cutting.’
Moreover, she added, if this incentive did not exist, they would wait until the smaller trees were big enough to cut for furniture and construction – and all that time, they would be absorbing carbon.
A recent study showed that bigger, older trees absorb more CO2 than saplings. As for Drax’s claim that what counts is regrowth across the region, ‘that just doesn’t capture what’s happening around the mills where they’re sourcing the wood’.
According to a study by a team of academics, published in December by Carter’s law centre, Enviva’s operations in North Carolina ‘pose high risks to wildlife and biodiversity, especially birds’.
The Roanoke wetlands are home to several rare or endangered species: the World Wildlife Fund said in a report that the forests constitute ‘some of the most biologically important habitats in North America’ and constitute a ‘critical/endangered resource’.
Meanwhile, in North Yorkshire, the sheer scale of Drax’s biomass operation is hard to take in at first sight. Wood pellets are so much less dense than coal, so Drax has had to commission the world’s biggest freight wagons to move them by rail from the docks at Hull, Immingham and Port of Tyne. Each car is more than 60ft high, and the 25-car trains are half a mile long. On arrival, the pellets are stored in three of the world’s largest domes, each 300ft high – built by lining colossal inflated polyurethane balloons with concrete. Inside one of them, not yet in use, the echo is impressive. Light filters in through slits in the roof, like a giant version of the Pantheon church in Rome.
To date, only one of Drax’s six turbine ‘units’ has been converted from coal to biomass: another two are set to follow suit in the next two years. Eventually, the firm says, its 3.6 gigawatt capacity – about five per cent of the UK total – will be ‘predominantly’ biomass, burning seven million tons of pellets a year.
From the domes, the pellets are carried along a 30ft-wide conveyor belt into a milling plant where they are ground to powder. This is burnt in the furnaces, blown down into them by deafening industrial fans.
All this has required an investment of £700 million. Thanks to the green subsidies, this will soon be paid off. Even if all Britain’s forests were devoted to Drax, they could not keep its furnaces going. ‘We need areas with lots of wood, a reliable supply chain,’ Mr Burdett said.
As well as Enviva, Drax buys wood from other firms such as Georgia Biomass, which supplies mainly pine. It is building new pellet-making plants in Mississippi and Louisiana.
Last month, the Department of Energy and Climate Change issued new rules on biomass sourcing, and will insist on strict monitoring to ensure there really is ‘sustainability’.
In North Carolina, this will not be easy: as Carter points out, there is very little local regulation. But wouldn’t a much more effective and cheaper way of cutting emissions be to shut down Drax altogether, and replace it with clean new gas plants – which need no subsidy at all?
Mr Burdett said: ‘We develop our business plan in light of what the Government wants – not what might be nice.’