Almost exactly four years ago, I revealed details in the Daily Mail of what I described as the perfect symbol of Britain’s ‘mad energy policy’. It demonstrated more vividly than anything just how far the politicians in charge had become so lost in ‘green’ make-believe that their behaviour amounted to collective insanity.
What I was writing about in 2013 was development plans for Yorkshire’s giant Drax coal-fired power station, then the largest, cleanest and most efficient of its kind in Europe, supplying some 7 per cent of Britain’s energy needs.
Drax was about to spend £700 million, as a direct result of ‘green’ government policy, to convert half of its six giant furnaces from burning coal — the cheapest source of energy — to burning millions of tonnes a year of wood pellets, shipped over from America.
For Drax the commercial logic of this switch had become unavoidable. For a start, the Government was just about to introduce a steeply rising ‘carbon tax’ which would eventually make burning coal wholly uneconomical.
The crucial point was that burning wood had been officially ruled by the EU to be ‘carbon neutral’ on the grounds that any CO2 it emitted would eventually be recovered from the atmosphere by new trees planted to replace those which had been chopped down.
By switching to wood, it was claimed, Drax — the single largest producer of CO2 emissions in Britain — would not only help ‘save the planet’ but also make a huge contribution to meeting the EU’s target that Britain must generate nearly a third of its electricity from so-called ‘zero-carbon’ sources of renewable energy.
Even before this huge project got under way, serious questions were being raised over these claims as well as the extraordinary cost. Now, a report published this week by the man who was formerly a special adviser to Chris Huhne — the minister in charge of Britain’s energy policy when the Drax project was first discussed in 2012 — has confirmed those concerns in spades.
The fact it is by someone so close to the subject matter — Duncan Brack worked for Huhne when he was minister of state at the Department for Energy and Climate Change — only adds to the sense of outrage.
The most telling point in his report for Chatham House, the respected think-tank, and one which is supported even by ardent green lobby groups such as Greenpeace, is that in reality Drax hasn’t been making any savings on CO2 emissions at all.
Firstly, it is ludicrous to claim that wood is ‘carbon neutral’ on the grounds that replacement trees would eventually absorb the carbon emitted when a felled tree is burned. The report says it could take a replacement tree hundreds of years to grow to maturity — which would be far too long to have any supposed effect on any climate change.
Second, burning wood, because of its lower heat efficiency, emits 12 per cent more CO2 than burning coal per unit of electricity.
Yet the report points out that the Government’s assessment of the impact on the climate from coal to wood pellets totally ignores emissions from burning the pellets in power stations. The Government only counts emissions caused by harvesting, processing and transporting the wood pellets to the power station.
This brings us on to the deeply alarming process involved in the production of this ‘green’ fuel from forests in North Carolina where the wood is turned into pellets and then transported no fewer than 3,800 miles across the Atlantic to Yorkshire.
It has been abundantly documented, not least in the U.S. itself, that a huge quantity of the millions of tonnes of wood turned into pellets is not just offcuts and waste material such as sawdust, as is claimed.
Duncan Brack’s report says that about three-quarters of the pellets from the southern U.S. came from whole trees, while such ‘residues’ accounted for just a quarter.
What’s more, these trees are growing in some of America’s most prized and wildlife-rich virgin hardwood forests.
Little wonder that wood-pellet production has been described by conservation organisations as ‘an ecological catastrophe’.