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Drax - more at stake than burning wood

The huge Drax station in Yorkshire, with the biomass storage facilities in the foreground. Photo Claire Louise Jackson/shutterstock.com.

Burning wood to generate electricity is no solution for Britain’s tenuous energy supply – and claims it is “carbon neutral” are flawed…

Operations at the huge Drax power station in North Yorkshire are under scrutiny once again. In early October, the BBC broadcast a Panorama documentary alleging that Drax was burning wood pellets from primary Canadian forests to generate electricity.

This doesn’t look like an environmentally sustainable approach. Nor is it a sustainable source of Britain’s energy.

It’s worth looking behind how Drax became the flagship for biomass electricity generation. Drax, by far Britain’s biggest power station, has converted two-thirds of its capacity from using coal to biomass, mostly imported wood pellets. It describes this as “renewable energy” from “sustainable” products, which attracts enormous financial subsidies.

Drax Group, a stock exchange quoted company, owns and runs the power station. It retorted that Panorama had it wrong. The wood was unusable for other applications, the forest was not primary, it had all the appropriate licenses in place and so on.


Drax’s ethical approach has been questioned before. The company, which has 13 sites in the US and Canada, was accused of exceeding limits on emissions of air pollutants. This September it agreed to pay over $3 million to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to settle claims against two of its plants in the area. Drax denied liability but still paid up. Drax CEO Will Gardner said, “Sustainable biomass is increasingly being recognised by governments and scientists around the world as having the potential to play a critical role in tackling the climate crisis.”

But not everyone agrees with the company. Its claims are questionable according to a report from Resource, a media company specialising in the waste and recycling sector. And US environmental group the National Resources Defense Council says that the BBC documentary effectively challenged Drax’s claims that it only used wood waste, which earlier investigations had also uncovered. This underlines the inadequacy of sustainability criteria used for biomass imports.

‘What drives the biomass industry is not “care for the planet” but the huge subsidies…’

Older, primary forests store more carbon than commercially managed timber. And they are valuable as plant and animal habitats. But the debate about whether Drax is burning the right wood or the wrong wood or if it has licences is beside the point. Wood takes decades to grow, at a minimum, but moments to burn.

The current demand for waste wood is outstripping supply, especially in Sweden and other northern European countries. Factor in that Drax has to ship biomass across the Atlantic, and the argument for sustainability and energy security melts like snow on the water.

What drives the growing biomass industry here, is not “care for the planet” but the huge subsidies it attracts, estimated to be of the order of £5.6 billion over the last decade. Drax alone received £893 million from the government in 2021.

The government’s advisers the Climate Change Committee have long argued that biomass is essential to Britain’s carbon zero future. They see subsidies as a means to encourage industry involvement. They steamroller all attempts to make the case that importing biomass is not sustainable.

This August the government announced a consultation about boosting biomass energy generation, or rather it’s already decided to increase it and is now asking how. The justification is that it will “improve the diversity of energy supply” in pursuit of net zero and commitments to the Paris Agreement.

Besides the dogma on net zero, a lack of strategic planning for energy supply and the electricity market pricing mechanism are the main problems for Britain. Importing more wood pellets and allowing fracking exploration again don’t add up to a strategy.

Events since the Russian invasion of Ukraine have shown the risk of relying on imports – of materials to burn or electricity via interconnectors. Energy security is not just another buzzword, but is essential for Britain – it can’t be delegated elsewhere.

But many people would be surprised to know that in 2022 Britain is a net exporter of electricity, particularly to France. The reason is simple: generating companies can command a good price. And it’s not just the surplus from renewable energy sources – this year to the end of October fossil fuel, almost all of it gas, accounts for 45 per cent of electricity generation.

The promises of “net zero”, or even “negative carbon”, are not only based on continuing subsidies, but also the expectation that carbon capture and sequestration (underground storage) can be effectively applied to burning biofuels. Drax claims that it is proven technology, but the detail shows there is much about it that’s not yet certain. The promising projects it cites are not yet near the required scale.

Reliance on the market

The other factor in UN climate change targets is reliance on market mechanisms such as emissions trading and carbon credits. The crude underlying idea is that companies must pay to burn carbon-based fuel and so will then have an incentive to reduce output. As with any capitalist market, the aim is to make profits, but that does not guarantee the best long term technical solutions will emerge. In some cases it even has the opposite effect.

This year the price of gas has fluctuated wildly in response to events – not that the dips have found their way into our energy bills. And part of the overall rise is attributed to the EU emissions trading scheme. In September the EU proposed changes to “keep the price of carbon down” – by manipulating their own market mechanisms. According to industry analysts Carbon Market Watch, this action is likely to be self-defeating.

Britain left the EU trading scheme but now operates one that is very similar. Outcomes from these markets are not always clear; the claimed reduction in emissions are not necessarily attributable to the market mechanisms. All these schemes involve complex financial arrangements, with scope for nations and individual companies to manipulate them – as well as opportunities for outright fraud.

There’s an incentive to shift production (and emissions) from countries that comply closely with the UN targets to those that don’t. Which might explain, at least in part, why carbon emissions are down in Britain and comparable countries while they continue to increase worldwide.

British energy bill payers are forking out over £2.5 million a day to perpetuate this conceit. So long as we endure this unscientifically justified robbery without insisting on being consulted about our future, the vultures will continue to feast. And it’s likely they won’t be able to keep the lights on.