The Truth About Biomass Use at Drax
Who said this? Was it an NGO? A treehugger?
“We argue that bioenergy production is not carbon neutral, in almost all instances. This casts doubt on whether bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is a net-negative emissions technology. The widespread deployment of BECCS looks challenging.”
Nope – that’s Jefferies equity analyst Luke Sussams, quoted in the Guardian after Drax was dropped from the S&P Global Clean Energy Index (“Drax dropped from index of green energy firms amid biomass doubts“).
Even as UK and EU policymakers promise to plant millions of trees to help slow climate change, the 4,000 MW Drax power station in Yorkshire, UK burns the equivalent of 25 million trees per year,[i] adding ever more forest carbon to the atmosphere. In 2020 Drax belched out more than 13.3 million tonnes of CO2 from burning wood pellets, with another 3.5 million tonnes CO2 emitted by wood burned during pellet manufacturing.[ii] The total for Drax’s so-called “zero carbon” biomass comes to ~17 million tonnes CO2 for an biomass emissions rate of 1,205 kg CO2 per MWh,[iii] or about double Drax’s rate for other fuel-burning of 620 kg CO2 per MWh.[iv] And that doesn’t even include the approximately 1.6 million tonnes of fossil fuel CO2 emitted by manufacturing and transporting pellets that year.[v]
Drax and the policymakers who promote burning trees for renewable energy claim that logging and burning trees “reduces” emissions and “benefits” forests. The truth is that logging forests destroys ecosystems and biodiversity, and burning wood emits more carbon pollution than coal, along with deadly air pollution. Despite these impacts, Drax receives about £2 million per day in UK renewable energy subsidies. If this expensive forest-destroying scam is really the best that the UK and other governments can do on climate, we’re in even more trouble than we thought. We need new leaders who will base climate policy on science, not false solutions.
For more detailed information on Drax’s impacts, visit “Cut Carbon Not Forests.” For an detailed examination of Drax’s false claims and how they mislead the public, see a complaint to the OECD showing how Drax violates guidelines for responsible business conduct.
“Reducing” emissions is based on ignoring emissions
Drax claims to have “reduced” greenhouse gas emissions by over 80% by switching to biomass instead of coal. That slight of hand consists of simply not counting the millions of tonnes of CO2 belching out the smokestack. The company justifies its claim that biomass is climate-friendly by misrepresenting the international methodology for counting biomass emissions, misleadingly equating an accounting convention with biomass being “carbon neutral.” Drax claims
“The biogenic carbon emissions resulting from generation are counted as zero in official reporting… as the use of sustainable biomass is considered to be CO2 neutral at the point of combustion. This methodology originates from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.”[vi]
But that’s false. In fact the IPCC explicitly warns that counting biomass emissions as zero in the energy sector for UNFCCC reporting “should not be interpreted as a conclusion about the sustainability or carbon neutrality of bioenergy.”[vii] Burning biomass emits CO2 and those emissions are counted in the land sector under the IPCC protocol, not the energy sector, but where they are reported obscures the fact that biogenic CO2 warms the climate just as effectively as fossil CO2. It’s misleading to pretend, as Drax does, that counting emissions as zero means they actually have “zero” emissions.
And policymakers take note: Drax has come up with an even more expensive scam, claiming that it can produce “negative” emissions by capturing biomass CO2 and burying it underground, as biomass energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). But as the IPCC states, if biomass isn’t carbon neutral, then capturing that CO2 won’t make it carbon negative.[viii] Since Drax’s operation isn’t carbon neutral, Drax’s claims about negative emissions with BECCS are false, too. What Drax cares about, though, is getting more money out of the public. Since Drax is losing subsidies for bioenergy in 2027, they’re using BECCS to continue lobbying for a subsidies post-2027 even if BECCS doesn’t work. A report Drax commissioned requests a “two-part model” where Drax continues to collect subsidies for power generation, and gets additional subsidies if they manage to store some carbon. Anyone counting the UK government to do the smart thing, here?
To state the obvious: Logging and burning wood emits carbon instantaneously, while re-growing trees to sequester equivalent carbon takes much longer. Numerous peer-reviewed studies have shown that burning biomass increases net CO2 emissions compared to fossil fuels for decades to centuries.[ix] As the IPCC warns, “If bioenergy production is to generate a net reduction in emissions, it must do so by offsetting those emissions through increased net carbon uptake of biota and soils.”[x] But Drax and other biomass producers like pellet giant Enviva[xi] aren’t increasing net carbon uptake – instead they’re sucking carbon out of the forest and sending it into the atmosphere. For two examples, see below.
Biomass logging impacts in the USA and Canada
The majority of the pellets Drax burns are imported from the US and Canada. Drax uses pellets manufactured at its own plants and those from other companies including Enviva. Drax and other pellet users often claim they only burn “waste” wood or residues, a term that has no fixed meaning and includes whole trees harvested specifically for fuel.
These plants source trees in the US Southeast not just from pine plantations, but also from natural wetland hardwood forests, irreplaceable storehouses of forest carbon and biodiversity. These forests are being obliterated in the name of “renewable” energy.[xii]
In British Columbia, Pinnacle Renewable Energy, which was recently purchased by Drax, is logging primary forests that are vast storehouses of carbon and some of the most irreplaceable ecosystems on the planet. Independent supply base audits by the Sustainable Biomass Program found that 28 per cent of Pinnacle’s woody biomass comes from primary feedstock – meaning directly from the forest – in B.C.[xiii]
Drax’s entire business model depends on people continuing to play along with the Big Lie that burning biomass has net zero emissions. Our planet’s future depends on rejecting such false solutions. To save ecosystems and the climate, we need to protect and restore forests – not burn them for fuel.
[i] Drax burned about 7 million tonnes of wood pellets in 2020, equating to around 13 million tonnes green wood. Assuming a average pine tree stem weighs around 515 kg, this translates to around 25 million stem-equivalents. Drax claims they source about half their pellet feedstock from mill residues, thus this material is the by-product of trees harvested for purposes other than wood-pellet production.
[ii] Jonker, J. G. G., et al. (2014). “Carbon payback period and carbon offset parity point of wood pellet production in the Southeastern United States.” GCB Bioenergy 6(4): 371-389. Drying pellets requires burning 0.51 tonnes of green wood per tonne finished pellets, a figure similar to wood use specified in operating permits for large wood pellet plants in the US.
[iii] Calculated as emissions of 13,273,000 tonnes of “biologically sequestered” CO2 + 3,500,000 tonnes CO2 from wood burned including pellet manufacturing, divided by 14.1 TWh of generation, per Drax 2020 annual report.
[iv] Calculated as reported emissions of 2,682,000 tonnes of CO2 divided by generation (total generation minus hydro generation minus biomass generation: 18.8 TWh – [18.8 TWh*0.02]- 14.1 TWh).
[v] Drax claims their emission rate for lifecycle emissions for pellet manufacturing and transport is 109 kg/MWh.
[vi] Table note, page 50 Drax 2020 Annual Report
[viii] AR6 at 5-108. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_Full_Report.pdf
[x] IPCC AR5 WG III 11.13.4 GHG emission estimates of bioenergy production systems, 2014 (https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ipcc_wg3_ar5_full.pdf p. 877)
[xi] For an explanation of Enviva’s misleading claims, see Booth, M. S. (2016). Carbon Emissions and Climate Change Disclosure by the Wood Pellet Industry – A Report to the SEC on Enviva Partners LP. Pelham, MA, Partnership for Policy Integrity. https://www.pfpi.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Report-to-SEC-on-Enviva-March-14-2016.pdf