Thu. May 19th, 2022

A taxpayer-subsidized renewable energy plant operated by Drax is the largest single source of carbon dioxide in the UK, according to new analysis shared exclusively with Sky News.

Drax’s Yorkshire power plant is receiving a multi-million pound grant to burn woody biomass pellets for the production of renewable electricity.

New research from climate think tank Ember said the plant is among the biggest sources of carbon dioxide and PM10 (10 micrometer and smaller particles) air pollution from all EU power plants – when biomass emissions are included – more even than some of Europe’s dirtiest coal plants.

Yet emissions are not included in the UK’s total.

Sources: EUETS portal (2021), Drax annual report 2020 (2021) via Ember.  Note: Taking into account whole life-cycle emissions, biomass is considered carbon neutral at the EUETS incineration site
Drax is one of the highest emitters of CO2 from EU power plants. NB: Taking into account all life cycle emissions, EUETS considers biomass to be carbon neutral at the incineration site. Sources: EUETS portal (2021), Drax annual report via Ember

The UK excludes these biomass emissions from its total number because – like the EU – it treats bioenergy as immediately carbon neutral under the assumption that forest regeneration absorbs the carbon again.

But recent science disputes this carbon neutrality, said Embers chief operating officer Phil MacDonald. In fact, there is a “real risk” that biomass is responsible for “significant emissions,” he said.

Duncan Brack, a policy analyst who has authored a report questioning biomass policy, said electricity bill payers “are actually paying to increase CO2 emissions into the atmosphere”.

Drax claims to have reduced its emissions by 90% since coal was replaced by sustainable biomass. A spokesman called Ember’s interpretation of the figures “completely contrary to what the world’s leading climate scientists at the UN IPCC say about sustainable biomass, which is crucial to achieving global climate goals”.

The amount of pollution from burning wood to electricity is not disputed by bioenergy companies, but this analysis may ignite the flames in the debate on the sustainable status of bioenergy.

Drax is the fourth highest emitter of the polluting PM10.  Source: Europe Beyond Coal Database (2021), via Ember.  Note: These figures are for 2019.
Drax is the fourth highest emitter of the polluting PM10. Source: Europe Beyond Coal Database (2021), via Ember. Note: These figures are for 2019.

Critics point out that forests take decades to recover and recycle all carbon, allowing global warming to emit emissions just as the world seeks to reduce emissions by 2050.

In January, the European Academies Sciences Advisory Council (EASAC) claimed that biomass technology “is not effective in mitigating climate change”, and in February more than 500 researchers asked the EU to revoke the “carbon neutral” status of biomass.

“Regrowth takes time, the world does not have to solve climate change,” the researchers wrote.

A 2018 study estimated that it would take 40 to 100 years or more for forests to recover carbon emissions from burning wood pellets, if ever, because forests are exposed to dangers such as disease and fires.

The paper’s lead author John Sterman, a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, warned that assuming biofuels were CO2-neutral could actually “exacerbate the irreversible effects of climate change before benefits accrue.”

His paper concluded that wood emits more CO2 per Produced electricity than coal because it is less efficient.

A spokesman for an energy department (Beis) said the “unrecognized” Embers figures. They said biomass was key to the government’s plans to reduce emissions by 2050 and that Britain is following relevant guidance from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Drax continues to burn a small amount of coal. By 2020, its emissions from coal were 1.5 million tonnes (Mt) and from biomass – which Drax calls ‘biologically excreted carbon’ was 13.3 Mt. But even without the coal emissions, the Selby plant would remain the largest single point source of CO2 in the UK and the fourth highest in the EU.

Drax is individually facing criminal prosecution for an alleged health risk to workers posed by wood dust from the pellets before they are burned. This article deals with emissions from the wood incineration process that are not related to the dust or handling process.

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