C’est à ce prix que vous mangez du sucre en Europe

For years, sceptics have been saying that sending vast subsidies to Drax power station is a mistake. Drax, built on a coal mine to burn coal to generate electricity, was encouraged to convert to burning wood when the black stuff fell out of fashion.

The burning of such biomass was badged as “renewable,” since if you cut a tree down, it grows back; and if you cut a forest down, it too grows back. Drax declared that it would only use twigs or useless bits of chaff, bark etc to stuff its infernal maw – but no-one seriously believed that you could feed the beast on such bits and bobs.

When I wrote Denierland, Drax’s own website quantified its consumption as 130,000 tonnes of wood pellets per week, or 6.76 million tonnes per year. With what I thought was generous terms, I worked out that 583 km2 of forest would need to be clearcut to supply that quantity of pellets. Allowing the life of Drax to be a further 25 years, and that consumption of biomass ceased after that time, I also worked out that a further 1800 km2 of forest would need to be planted (on land with zero existing biomass) to offset the carbon dioxide emissions from the transatlantic pellet trade.

This is of course stupidity on stilts. Importing wood to burn it is obscene. And even if you could make the carbon dioxide sums balance, you still have the wholesale destruction of habitat to answer. If you planted a tree with the intention of later burning it, that would be one thing. But thirty years ago (a very optimistic cropping cycle for fast-growing pines in the US south) no-one was planting trees and writing “for Mr. Drax in 2022” on them.

The hunger of the beast, at nearly 600 km2 per year, meant that it was bound to start biting out chunks of high-quality forest, not mere plantation. The cynic suspected that the supply chain would be sufficiently opaque that happy Mr. Drax could continue to blather on about thinnings and twigs out of one side of his mouth while at the same time devouring forests with the other half, at a scale which, if widely known about, would mean the abrupt end of his feast.

Of course, something else that is well known in sceptical circles but not, it seems, in the wider public, is that every household is sending £30 a year to Mr. Drax to subsidize his voracious appetite for wood. [Based on 2019 figures; I have not looked at more recent annual reports. Paul Homewood at Notalot summed Drax’s 2021 subsidies to £893,000,000, about a hundred mill more than when I looked.] That is in addition to the value of electricity sold, which if this year is anything to go on, will be a bumper year for holders of Drax shares – from memory 3 of the 4 converted units at Drax are on Renewables Obligation Certificates, such that they obtain the subsidies irrespective of the cost of electricity [it depends on the value assigned to a ROC in each year].

If you took those three tenners from each of the UK’s 28 million households and spread them out on the land, they would cover 70 hectares.

Of course, we are stuck with stupid schemes whose terms were struck by stupid people, and we cannot simply turn Drax off, because we are desperate for solid power. Such is the mad world of the energy policy of the UK.

Mad also was the idea of appointing Drax’s head of Sustainability and Policy to the UK’s Climate Change Committee, the artist formerly known as the Committee on Climate Change, which advises the UK government on climate policy, including the policy of burning biomass to generate electricity.

Rebecca Heaton is Head of Sustainability and Policy at Drax Group and has responsibility for the sustainability of the global forest supply chains used to deliver sustainable biomass to its power station.

Heaton was appointed in 2017 and served for four years, before leaving last year:

Dr Becky Heaton is to step down from her role on the Climate Change Committee (CCC) after more than four years of service.

The announcement comes ahead of Dr Heaton’s appointment as Director of Sustainability at the renewable energy company, Ovo, later this summer*.

I am absolutely sure that nothing improper took place and that Heaton’s role on the committee was beyond reproach. However, it was certainly not a good look. And it was arguably stupid. When the CCC produced a report on biomass in 2018, Heaton naturally and respectably recused herself owing to her connection to The Beast of Selby. However, this meant that the one committee member with any knowledge of the subject was excluded from contributing to the report. What this means to me is that, yes, do appoint someone with expertise in biomass, but no, do not appoint someone with a tie to a biomass company that is strongly dependent on government policy for its success.

The CCC’s report noted that:

Using low-grade wood is controversial. What about clearcutting forests? (Note, in passing whose data the CCC are referencing? Yes, The Beast’s.)

As noted by Mark, BBC’s Panorama has just noticed the incongruity of paying a company billions of quid to destroy forests in the name of sustainability.

The Panorama investigation is welcome. I respect them for not simply sweeping the uncomfortable questions about Drax under the carpet. The programme airs tonight at 8, if anyone is in range of the receiving apparatus. I’ll be watching with interest.

To paraphrase Voltaire for another century, Is this the price we have to pay to keep the lights on in Europe?

Notes and References

* Heaton stayed as Director of Sustainability at Ovo for long enough to be shown her desk, before becoming Director of Environmental Sustainability at Lloyds Bank.

As Director of Environmental Sustainability, Rebecca will oversee the delivery of Lloyds Banking Group’s plan to achieve net zero.

Lloyds

Lloyds is a member of Mark Carney’s GFANZ. According to reports, some members of GFANZ are getting cold feet. Will Lloyds stick around? There are obvious risks to taking investment decisions with green sunglasses and blinkers on.

The featured image is not the responsibility of Mr. Drax. It is a generic image.

6 Comments

  1. A slight aside from Drax’s trees, the SNP made a statement they would be planting x million trees to replace the trees cut down for wind farms. Oh yes this sounds wonderfully green and conscientious but the reality can be seen quite clearly. Just north of Dunblane by the A9 there is a example of a well kept private plantation and a further 8 miles up the road is a fine example of part of the x million, the trees are barely visible choked by weeds and grass, there are some deciduous sections with thistles sticking out the tree tubes and the odd young tree ! Why is it so easy to find fault in everything they do ?

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  2. James S- “Why is it so easy to find fault in everything they do?”

    Er, because they do so much that is riddled with fault! JIT often comments that the whole tree-planting thing is nonsense on stilts if you just pay people to plant trees, but not to think about where you would plant them for best results, and certainly if you don’t pay them by results (i.e. how many are healthy and growing strongly in, say, 10 years time). I suspect the SNP are among the worst offenders, but certainly politicians of all stripes like nothing better than throwing taxpayers’ money at something, posing for a photo and a quick soundbite for the press, then moving on and forgetting all about it. Politicians and long-term are not words that make comfortable bed-fellows.

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  3. So, Drax’s head of Sustainability and Policy was appointed to the UK’s Climate Change Committee, where she sat alongside its Chairman, a man with personal interests in Veolia, a company which (according to its own website) is “committed to focusing on carbon reduction through energy efficiency and renewable power, preserving natural resources, protecting biodiversity, combating climate change and raising environmental awareness.” So there are two members of the committee with vested interests straight away, and yet it is always described as being “independent”.

    My Concise OED offers up various definitions of “independent”, but I struggle to apply any of them to a committee that has members on it who definitely have a dog in the fight. I accept that no rules have been broken, and that everything is declared and transparent, but I still think that the deference paid to a committee with such obvious conflicts of interest is beyond ridiculous.

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  4. BY the way, I have always thought it makes a lot more sense (and is a lot greener) to burn long dead trees (coal) than it does to chop down live ones to burn.

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  5. Well, the programme contained nothing surprising, but it did lay out the evidence clearly enough. Hopefully the problems of biomass have been brought to a wider audience.

    The new head of sustainability at Drax, Dr. Heaton’s replacement there, was utterly useless, an automaton like a speak your weight machine. Everyone knows that Drax burns trees. But they have to maintain the facade that their business model is built on burning sawdust and chaff. It is though obvious to anyone that there just isn’t enough sawdust and rotten twigs.

    The areas they are clearcutting would be afforded the highest level of protection in the UK – in fact we don’t have any areas remotely like that, having cleared it all hundreds of years ago. Panorama hardly glanced at biodiversity, but that is the key to me. I could care less about the CO2 emissions.

    Biomass is a non-starter. Unfortunately it has started, and it looks as if reverting Drax to burning coal would be politically impossible. And unfortunately if we stop feeding the beast, our lights will go out.

    Embarrassingly stupid energy policy has led us into a fine mess.

    ==

    In “related” posts below the main text, you’ll see a story by Paul Matthews about a 2018 Channel 4 documentary about Drax.

    ==

    In a headline, Desmog described Heaton’s appointment to the CCC as a glaring conflict of interest (actually quoting someone from an energy thinktank:

    https://www.desmog.com/2021/07/02/drax-climate-change-committee-rebecca-heaton/

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