by Judith Curry
Biomass pellets transported from North Carolina, U.S. are shipped 3800 miles to the UK and burned in Drax power station. Drax is switching to pellets as it is deemed ‘carbon neutral’, even though it belches out more CO2 than coal. – from David Rose
David Rose has a new article The bonfire of insanity. Excerpts:
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’.
The only large-scale way to do this is by burning wood, man’s oldest fuel – because EU rules have determined it is ‘carbon-neutral’.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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’.
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.’
JC comment. Another installment in the biomass fuel follies. The involvement of the southeast U.S. is of particular concern to me. Different states (and even cities) have vastly different policies regarding cutting down trees. In Atlanta, a lengthy process is needed to cut down a tree with trunk diameter exceeding 6″, and the answer is usually no.
The challenges that regional power providers face are not simple. About a month ago, I spent a day at Southern Company in Birmingham Alabama, discussing the issues that they face. They are under heavy pressure to decommission their coal plants, and are switching to natural gas. They have made a huge financial investment in clean coal/carbon sequestration technologies, but they don’t see this as economically viable in the next few decades. They are contemplating de-activating their coal plants (not decommissioning them), since they might be needed in the future, so they would incur extra costs to keep the plants capable of being activated in the future if needed. If burning wood pellets made any sort of sense, presumably this would be used by southeast U.S. regional energy providers?
How to do something that actually makes sense, economically and for the environment, is becoming increasingly challenging in the face of government regulations and incentives.