Sounds familiar? England’s own cash for ash

From the Times today (£)

£450m lost over failed green power programme

Minister who backed plan now works in sector

Britain is wasting hundreds of millions of pounds subsidising power stations to burn American wood pellets that do more harm to the climate than the coal they replaced, a study has found.

Chopping down trees and transporting wood across the Atlantic Ocean to feed power stations produces more greenhouse gases than much cheaper coal, according to the report. It blames the rush to meet EU renewable energy targets, which resulted in ministers making the false assumption that burning trees was carbon-neutral.

Green subsidies for wood pellets and other biomass were championed by Chris Huhne when he was Liberal Democrat energy and climate change secretary in the coalition government. Mr Huhne, 62, who was jailed in 2013 for perverting the course of justice, is now European chairman of Zilkha Biomass, a US supplier of wood pellets.

The report was written by Duncan Brack, a former special adviser to Mr Huhne, for Chatham House, the respected international affairs think tank. Britain is by far the biggest importer of wood pellets for heat and power in the EU, shipping in 7.5 million tonnes last year, mostly from the US and Canada.

Drax, Britain’s biggest power station, received more than £450 million in subsidies in 2015 for burning biomass, which was mostly American wood pellets. The report says that the government’s assessment of the impact on the climate of switching from coal to wood pellets is flawed because it ignores emissions from burning pellets in power stations. The assessment counts only emissions from harvesting, processing and transporting wood pellets.

Wood pellets are claimed to be carbon-neutral partly because the forests from which they come are replanted. New trees would eventually absorb as much carbon as was emitted when mature trees were harvested and burnt. However, the report says that this process could take centuries — too late to contribute to preventing climate change over coming decades.

Mr Brack said: “It is ridiculous for the same kind of subsidies that go to genuine zero-carbon technologies, like solar and wind, to go to biomass use that might be increasing carbon emissions. It’s not a good use of money.

“For any biomass facility that is burning wood for energy, unless they are only burning stuff like saw-mill residues or post-consumer waste, their activities will be increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere for decades or centuries. We shouldn’t be subsidising that.”

Pellet companies and power stations using them tended to claim that most of their wood was residues, Mr Brack said. In fact, about three quarters of the pellets from the southern US came from whole trees and residues accounted for only a quarter. “Whole trees can sometimes be misclassified as residues,” the report said. Mr Brack called on the EU to use its present review of energy policies to restrict subsidies to biomass that actually reduced emissions.

Nina Skorupska, chief executive of the Renewable Energy Association, which represents Drax, in North Yorkshire, said: “This report hangs on the fallacy that it takes decades for a forest to recapture carbon. That isn’t true . . . Imagine you have 100 trees, all growing 3 per cent bigger per year. You could remove two trees for timber, with offcuts going to bioenergy, and the forest would still absorb 1 per cent more carbon than the year before. There’s no delay involved. This is true whether it’s a hundred trees or a hundred million.

“Biomass delivers a massive cut in carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels. The whole supply chain is monitored in detail to ensure we cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 60 per cent compared to fossil fuels.”

Drax said: “The biomass we use is sustainably sourced from working forests where biodiversity is protected, productivity is maintained and growth exceeds what is harvested. We take the low-grade material to make the compressed wood pellets used to generate electricity . . . There is a widespread scientific consensus that this low-value wood is precisely the material which delivers the biggest carbon reductions.”


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  • Dan

    A con promoted by a conman.

    On another renewables note, i see the NI network is benefitting by a massive 0% from the wind turbine eyesores today. Wonderful.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    The biggest single problem that the plethora of small individual wind turbine generation projects comes from the centralisation rqeuirement. Energy losses through Corona discharge and other factors are inevitable with any long distance transmission of electricity. The centralisation of energy through the grid requires each individual project to connevt with a centralised distrobution point from which it is re-transmitted. Large scale projects minimalise the losses inevitable in this system, but the thousands of miles of new connection lines seriously increase the extent of such inevitable losses. I am aware taht this provides subsidies for landowners, but I’d prefer something which helps the entire community rather than a selective few.

    As Napoleon’s chief of police, Joseph Fouché, said about the seizure and execution of the royalist leader the Duc d’Enghien “C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute”, ( it’s worse than a crime, its a mistake!) The sheer inefficency of the current wind turbine policy for individual generators is similarly a mistake, and one for which even a small aquaintence with our own history would have shown a far better solution. From the plantation our local economy developed using our major resource, endless rainfall. Our world class Linen industry of the eighteenth century grew up beside rivers where water was diverted to dams so as to ensure a steady flow of water across mill water wheels. Unlike the vaguarities of wind power, this can easily ensure a constant supply if intellegently managed. Wind power developed often where water was not so easily available.

    For biomass to seriously balance out the equasion major replanting projects are required, with multible trees planted to replace each tree felled. The commercial exploitation of pretty much all energy resources needs to seriously “short change” such requirements in the interests of commercial profitability. Unlike what we’ve frequently been told, it is actually impossible to “save the world and still profit commercially.” The real gain will of necessity be an ongoing future for our children.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I’m forever wondering why don’t we combine sewage treatment with biodigester power generation.

    Not an outright substitute but certainly complementary and kills 2 birds with one stone.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Excellent idea, AG. I’m all for anything which is effective and does not rqeuire endless subsidy to keep it going.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I’d heard about the fertiliser part but wasn’t sure if this was the case.

    Aren’t they encouraging such things down south? On a grand scale?

  • anon

    Roughly 50% now – must have updated.

  • anne odling-smee

    Fast growing willow was the original source for use in boilers not trees taking decades. A planting of willow in Lecale has recently been harvested. Other plantings were done in Fermanagh 20 odd years ago.

  • Dan
  • anne odling-smee

    Yes I recollect that the fermanagh planting was bedevilled by ill thought out directions that nearly lost the lot. But not quite. Yes cack handed.

  • anon

    Odd – when you run the detailed output report on the site is shows a significant increase in power generated from wind compared with yesterday.

  • Nevin
  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Great stuff Nevin!

    I wonder will Dunman follow? They claimed that an expansion was in jeopardy on account of poor energy services.

    I wonder is it feasible to do this with water treatment in NI? (I be live there’s some plants in London area).

  • SeaanUiNeill

    The problem is that these schemes are being configured by people who have no “green” understanding and are simply putting such schemes together as “on paper” subsidy schemes. As you suggest, we really need thinking which sees the entire picture and organises in a practical and fully thought out sense projecst that will actually work here efficently on the ground, not simply the cosmetic pork barrel approach we ususlly get.

  • SeaanUiNeill


  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you for so full an explanation, OtF. My own Fermanagh relatives have suggested as much, but I did not know about the extent of the network contacts deployed.

    The problem with any modern representative democracy is that the representative system discourages political maturity in the general public. They are being asked to vote for people who suggste that they are willing to do all the hard work of governance for the electors. And here the problem is compounded by block votse entirely attached to the constitutional issue, which discourage any thought outside of that particular concern. For those of us trying to have a real life such a narrow focus distorts the situation and blocks the possibility of genuine policies getting a serious airing.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I entirely agree. It is only a few of us who think these things through who realise just how important environmental issues are. As a long term member of the Woodland Trust, I applaud strongly your “planting out eight acres of native deciduous woodland”, something that requires serious repeating across the province. I am very familiar with Crom where we have self seeded forest growth which goes back to the ice age. But that is the National Trust (another membership), a rather wiser organisation than most government to my mind.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’m in entire agreement, and pretty much in the same place, preserving what I can! But as you say, real policy is what is needed.

  • Mac an Aistrigh

    “Green guff”?

  • William Kinmont

    The trees largely belong to daera forest service they have about 20 years of harvest ahead which due to poor choices in planting and managing has left them with trees only for for pellets or agricultural fences. See how many different grant schemes and rules daera are coming up with to push farmers into fencing.
    On an aside Google moat primary school and see Arlene opening the lovely adventure playground. I don’t know if balcas supplied the timber but the headmistress’s husband is senior manager in the company see balcas facebook for pics of her getting mbe