Katy Brown uncovers the Orwellian world of ‘sustainable’ biomass ‘renewable’ energy production, and how Liverpool finds itself once again complicit in a harmful transatlantic trade.
Photo above by Steve Morgan (Greenpeace) of Drax Power Station, North Yorkshire – the UK’s single biggest emitter of carbon emissions
Photos by Katy Brown unless otherwise credited
If you’ve ever stood waiting for a train at Edge Hill station, or passed through on your travels there’s a good chance you’ll have spotted the Drax trains that spend a few days a week in the sidings there and regularly pass through loaded with their cargo from the docks. If you’re one of the few still travelling this route for work, or other reasons, you may have noticed them continuing to make their regular journeys.
These rail wagons are emblazoned with positive messages about how their contents are ‘powering the Northern Powerhouse’ ‘powering tomorrow’ and ‘carrying sustainable biomass for cost effective renewable power’. You could be forgiven for thinking that these trains are a pioneering example of the North stepping up to the challenge of tackling climate change.
However, a little investigation reveals that these seemingly environmentally friendly rail carriages are merely presenting a greenwash cover story for eco-system destruction on the other side of the Atlantic, where almost 4,000 miles away in the South Eastern US, biodiverse wetland forests are being decimated, to end up on these very trains.
Across the Southern US, important forest ecosystems, home to rare and endangered species, are being clear-felled, with the resulting logs being carried by road to mills where they are processed into pellets which are then transported by ship across the ocean to the UK. Much of this ‘woody biomass’ comes through the biomass terminal at Liverpool’s Alexandra Dock, purpose-built by the notorious Peel – no stranger to criticism regarding environmental damage in the North West – to receive biomass imports.
These pellets are then transported from Liverpool Port, on the all-too-familiar trains to Drax power station, North Yorkshire. Drax started off by co-firing biomass with coal, and has now replaced four of its six units to run on biomass.
This alone is cause for deep concern, but it gets worse, Drax receives £2.6 million every single day, in government renewable energy subsidies for burning this wood – money which comes from a surcharge on energy bills, at a time when subsidies for other genuine renewable energy sources such as wind and solar have been slashed. These subsidies are making the biomass industry more lucrative and accelerating forest destruction.
Sound like eco- apocalypse fiction? If only, but unfortunately we’ve done our homework, and this is real-life….
Drax’s website claims it sources wood from sustainably-managed forests, which it says are primarily in the US South but also in Europe, Canada and South America. However, according to a report released in 2018 Burning Trees for Power US company Enviva, which supplies Drax and is the largest exporter of wood pellets from the Southern US, sources wood for several of its North Carolina and Virginia wood pellet mills from the clear cuts of wetland forests, which are a global biodiversity hot spot area. Another report European Imports of Wood Pellets for “Green Energy” Devastating US Forests” states that as far back as 2013, investigative reporting by the Wall Street Journal uncovered clearcutting of 100 year-old wetland hardwood forests, to source one of Enviva’s North Carolina mills. Investigations in 2014, 2015 and 2016 uncovered similar, and in 2017 investigators tracked logging trucks carrying whole hardwood trees and other large-diameter wood from a destroyed hardwood forest back to another Enviva facility in North Carolina.
The Burning Trees report points out that unlike in the UK, private landowners in the US are not required to survey for threatened or endangered species and few states in the region have additional legal protections for imperilled species. Mammals impacted include the world’s only wild population of red wolves – one of the world’s most endangered canids – the Louisiana Black Bear and Eastern Fox squirrel. A number of bird species are also in danger, including both the Prothonotary and Cerulean warbler, and amphibian species of conservation concern in the region are also threatened such as the gopher frog which is endemic to the South Eastern US.
Adam Colette of US based campaign group Dogwood Alliance, which campaigns to protect forests says there are also local community impacts “Drax is destroying our precious forests in the Southern United States and burning them for electricity, which is bad for our communities and climate, not only is this logging having a negative impact on wetland forests and biodiversity, but through health impacts associated with proximity to the mills, as well as local forest loss it is also harming the rural, predominantly communities of color where the wood pellet mills are being built that feed Drax.” This mirrors the impacts of pollution on local communities at Liverpool port, where some of these pellets are brought.
Drax talks about decarbonising the UK’s energy system however the results of a study from Chatham House The Impacts of the Demand for Woody Biomass for Power and Heat on Climate and Forests, published in 2017 states that because biomass is much less energy dense than coal and other fossil fuels, it emits more carbon per unit of energy, and found that the harvesting of whole trees for energy in particular will in almost all circumstances increase net carbon emissions very substantially compared to fossil fuels. To put a number on it, burning biomass to produce electricity emits up to 50% more CO2 per megawatt hour than burning coal.
The claim that biomass burning is sustainable is also simply not true, certainly not on the scale that Drax is operating. The biomass burnt at Drax releases a significant amount of CO2 – over 13 million tonnes a year – into the atmosphere, CO2 embodied in trees which have taken years to accumulate it through photosynthesis. Even if a tree was immediately re-planted after each one was destroyed to be burnt at Drax it would take years for these trees to re-capture the CO2 emitted when burnt.
Drax also promotes bioenergy capture and storage (BECCS) and claims that through this technology it wants to become “carbon negative”. Drax’s hypothetical plans involve a pipeline being built under the Humber to transport ‘captured’ CO2 to store it under the North Sea. However Drax isn’t proposing to build this pipeline, it hopes National Grid will, and the technology for BECCS on any kind of scale isn’t proven . Large power stations, including Drax, have been using the promise of carbon capture and storage technology being just around the corner as an excuse to continue burning fuels that release CO2 into the atmosphere for decades, and they’re now applying those claims to justify continuing their biomass burning. We can’t afford to wait any longer for this technology to become a reality – we need to stop releasing CO2 into the atmosphere now.
While we’re on lock-down, it’s business as usual for Drax. Last week, unbelievably, the company went ahead with a face to face AGM. Campaign group Biofuelwatch held an online day of action the results of which can be viewed here:
Biofuelwatch is renewing its campaign to transfer UK renewable subsidies from tree burning in power stations to wind, wave & solar power. For more details visit the group’s website www.biofuelwatch.org