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.)
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.