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.”
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London