There have been demands from the UK Green Party, amongst others, to abolish biomass as a renewable energy source in order to remove Government subsidies from Drax, after the company was exposed cutting down Canadian forests.
Green Party member for the House of Lords Jenny Jones has said “biomass is not a source of green energy,” and demanded the “public subsidy should be removed from Drax” immediately in response to a BBC Panorama investigation into the company.
Biomass is Britain’s second-biggest source of renewable electricity after wind power, and is currently the top importer of biomass material in the world. The country also boasts the top subsidies for biomass energy production. Drax alone received £893 million in subsidies from the UK government in 2021 – the equivalent to £2 million a day.
Revealed in a recent BBC Panorama investigation, Drax, the country’s biggest power plant owner and importer of wood pellets, has been found to be cutting down environmentally important forests. Despite receiving billions of pounds in green energy subsidies from UK taxpayers.
The company burns millions of tonnes of imported wood pellets at its plant in North Yorkshire – which is currently classed as renewable energy and it has already received £6bn in green energy subsidies since converting to biomass in 2012.
Drax’s website claims to use wood pellets from “sustainably managed working forests” in the US, Canada, Europe, and Brazil and says these are “largely made up of low-grade wood”. The former coal plant currently produces 12% of the country’s renewable energy, while the company claims it intends to become carbon negative by 2030.
The wood is used for ‘biomass fuel’ and is burned in power stations to generate electricity, as well as being turned into biofuel for vehicles to replace diesel. While officially considered to be ‘green’ energy, scientists say it still contributes to deforestation and releases tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.
Panorama tracked satellite images of forest in the Canadian province of British Columbia, using logging licences and drones to verify Drax was picking up whole logs from the region. Results showed the company had bought logging licences for two patches containing areas of rare forest, despite warnings from Canadian officials to leave the trees untouched.
One of the reporters also followed a truck from a Drax mill to verify it was picking up whole logs from an area of precious forest. The Drax power station in Yorkshire is a converted coal plant, which now produces 12% of the UK’s renewable electricity.
In response to the investigation, Drax released a statement disputing the claims made by the BBC, saying that the trees in question were sent to timber mills with the sawdust by-products used by them for energy. It has claimed that the only logs they use are small, bent, or rotten ones.
Furthermore, Drax said it was not logging the forests itself, instead that the logging licences were transferred to other companies. The BBC, however, said that British Columbia officials confirmed the company still holds the licences.
A Drax spokesperson added that there were “stringent sustainability measures” applied to producing the pellets, with efforts to check other schemes and organisations they worked with. “We are constantly reviewing these policies to ensure we take account of the latest science.”
The Panorama investigation comes at a critical point, as the Government is set to publish new policies for biomass energy later this year in its efforts to achieve net zero by 2050.
How green is burning wood?
Compared to coal or natural gas, burning wood produces significantly more greenhouse gases.
The electricity is classed as renewable because as old trees are removed, new ones are planted to replace them. These are intended to recapture the carbon emitted by burning wood pellets.
What isn’t often considered is the time it can take for new trees to sequester the required amount of carbon to counteract emissions released. It can take decades, and the off-setting can only work if the original pellets are made with wood from sustainable sources.
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