Replacing coal with wood pellets in our power stations is bad for the climate, for health and for our pockets.
In the Energy Bill going through Parliament there is allowance for generous subsidy for a huge push towards burning wood to produce electricity. It’s already happening. Drax power station in Yorkshire has converted one of its boilers to burn wood pellets instead of coal; soon three of its six boilers will be doing this and the power station will then be receiving north of half a billion pounds a year in subsidy. By 2020, the Government estimates, up to 11 per cent of our generating capacity will be from burning wood.
This is a really bad idea. It will cost a fortune, worsen air pollution, exacerbate dependency on foreign energy and increase greenhouse gas emissions compared with burning gas and maybe even with burning coal. All these are in direct contradiction of the Energy Bill’s ostensible purpose. Yet “biomass” is trumpeted as a key part of the Government’s strategy to keep the lights on and combat climate change.
It is also a retrograde step, taking us back towards the days when we relied on plant growth for most of our energy. According to Tony Wrigley’s recent book, Energy and the Industrial Revolution, firewood provided a third of Britain’s energy under Elizabeth I, more than draught animals, human muscle-power, wind, water or coal. By the time of Queen Victoria, firewood’s contribution had fallen to 0.1 per cent.
This astonishing change was key to the industrial revolution. To sustain an industrial economy requires far more energy than can be obtained from even the fastest-growing trees, crops or from horses. Britain would have stagnated in the early 1800s if it had not tapped almost inexhaustible supplies of coal to replace the need to fell trees and grow oats for horses. By 1850 England was each year burning coal equivalent in energy terms to the maximum output of a forest one and a half times the country’s land area. Thanks to coal, that deforestation could begin to be reversed. By 2000, Britain’s forest cover had trebled since its low point in 1900.
Under the Government’s plan, biomass power stations will soon be burning much more wood than the country can possibly produce. There is a comforting myth out there that biomass imports are mainly waste that would otherwise decompose: peanut husks, olive pips, bark trimmings and the like. Actually, the bulk of the imports are already and will continue to be of wood pellets.
It is instructive to trace these back to their origin. Reporters for The Wall Street Journal recently found that the two pelleting plants established in the southern US specifically to supply Drax are not just taking waste or logs from thinned forest, but also taking logs from cleared forest, including swamp woodlands in North Carolina cleared by “shovel-logging” with giant bulldozers (running on diesel). Local environmentalists are up in arms.
The logs are taken to the pelleting plants where they are dried, chopped and pelleted, in an industrial process that emits lots of carbon dioxide and pollutants. They are then trucked (more diesel) to ports, loaded on ships (diesel again), offloaded at the Humber on to (yet more diesel) trains, 40 of which arrive at Drax each day.
Yet until recently the Government was in denial about all this diesel. “No net emissions during production are assumed,” it said in its 2007 Biomass Strategy. More recently, it has admitted that the energy costs of transporting biomass can be up to “46 per cent of the energy generated by combustion at the power station” if shipped from afar.