On Wednesday 27 April, campaigners from the Yorkshire and Humber Climate Justice Coalition, acting as part of the Stop Burning Trees Coalition, held a Green Jobs Fair in Leeds City Centre.
The event was timed to coincide with the Drax Group’s annual general meeting in London, with groups across the UK holding similar events to raise awareness. Campaigners aimed to highlight the destruction of the world’s forests to feed Drax’s appetite for wood pellets and show the public the alternatives available.
The history of Drax
Drax power station began operating in 1974 and was designed to generate power using coal from the nearby Selby Coalfield. By 1986, it had doubled in size and in 1988 Drax became the first UK power plant to fit flue gas desulphurisation equipment, to remove sulphur dioxide from coal-fired emissions. By 2009, Drax had completed work to enable co-firing of coal and wood pellets, and by 2016, 70 percent of power generated by Drax was from wood pellets.
The United Kingdom is the largest importer of wood pellets in the world. In 2020, the UK imported over nine million metric tons of such products, during which time Drax generated 11 percent of the UK’s ‘renewable’ power. A report published by the government in 2020 showed that around 11 percent of the UK’s power came from biomass, with the Office for National Statistics stating that “biomass is the biggest source of renewable energy consumed in the UK”.
Renewable power generation
Unlike other renewables like wind, hydro and solar power, biomass is not a power source that is emission free at the point it is burned. In 2021, Drax is reported to have emitted 14.8m tonnes of C02.The research by climate think tank Ember reports that Drax is one of the biggest sources of carbon dioxide emissions of all EU power stations, ranking above some of the dirtier EU (lignite) coal plants.
In an apparent exception to the usual convention on emissions reporting, country inventories for emissions do not normally include emissions associated with the transportation and production of goods and materials elsewhere. However, for Drax, this seems a substantial oversight.
Not so carbon neutral?
Emissions from wood pellets burned at Drax are not officially reported by the UK. There is an assumption that they are immediately carbon neutral on the basis that forest regrowth soaks up (sequesters) the carbon. This seems to me to ignore that regrowth and sequestration of carbon will take many years, this ‘payback period’, can range from 20 to over 100 years. The counter argument seems to be that, in the USA at least, trees harvested annually form a very low percentage of the total forest area. I have seen no calculations to back this up or whether or not this remains true for increasing pellet production and use.
Also not reported is the C02 cost of transportation. With many of the wood pellets used by Drax coming from the US, the emissions created by that journey give environmental campaigners further reason to doubt Drax’s supposedly green credentials.
Other factors in the Drax debate
There is a consensus that the provision of wood pellets, whether from plantations specifically grown to be burned or from thinning and other forestry management, has a negative impact on biodiversity and C02 emissions.
As well as greenhouse gas emissions, particulate matter is emitted at Drax, particularly PH10 particulates, which can have serious repercussions for human health.
Drax’s future role
So, could Drax have a potential role in either the ongoing climate emergency or the rather more immediate energy crisis?
When it comes to the climate emergency and the impact on biodiversity, I am wholeheartedly in support of the Yorkshire and Humber Climate Justice Coalition. If I do have a reservation, it is that maybe now, amidst the present energy crisis, is not the time to close Drax. The UK government is reported to be considering asking Drax to continue coal burning beyond its planned phase out date. However, continuing to import wood pellets or coal wouldn’t necessarily improve the UKs energy security or carbon footprint.
I would like to see a phased reduction in the use of wood pellets over time. Any green government subsidies aimed at pellet usage, may be better redirected at other greenhouse gas reduction measures which have a higher potential climate impact. For example, carbon capture and storage in energy intensive industries, such as cement manufacture, or perhaps methods to reduce methane emissions?
While there’s many aspects of its future that remain unclear, there’s no doubt that Drax and the government will continue to come under pressure from campaigners to put more time and money into truly renewable sources of energy.