Coal-Biomass Conversions: Replacing one (climate) disaster with another

wood burn

Written by Sophie Bastable from Biofuelwatch

Under the guise of “renewable energy” burning wood in power stations has become a massive growth industry in the UK. Interestingly, by far and away the biggest demand is coming from coal-fired power station operators. So far five of them have announced plans to convert, either partly or completely, to biomass. These are Tilbury in Essex, Ironbridge in Shropshire, Eggborough and Drax in Yorkshire, and Lynemouth in Northumberland.

Between them these power stations will require almost six times as much wood as the UK produces in total every year, and twice as many wood pellets as were produced worldwide in 2010. Biofuelwatch explains why this spells disaster for the world’s natural habitats, human rights, and hopes of combating climate change.

Logging the World’s Forests

A demand for biomass on the scale planned has dire implications. So far, most wood pellets imported to the UK come from Canada and the Southern US, with some sourced from the Baltic States, Russia and Portugal. In Canada and the Southern US, highly biodiverse forests are already being clearcut to produce pellets. And across Russia, the Baltic States, the Mediterranean and Scandinavia, the last biodiverse forests are being destroyed and then turned into monoculture tree plantations for biomass.

This trend is likely to get worse as demand for biomass grows in the UK. Energy firms are expanding operations in North America, with RWE, E.On and Drax all investing heavily in large new pellet plants. In the longer term energy companies are looking at imports from Brazil, West and Central Africa and other regions of the global South, where trees grow faster and land is cheaper.

Harming People around the World

At the moment there are few legal restrictions on where biomass can come from, and as the rush for biofuels has already shown, companies usually go for the cheapest growing land they can find. This means a high risk of land-grabbing from some of the world’s poorest people in the Global South, and rising food prices as land is diverted away from growing food.

Although burning biomass releases less of the chemical sulphur dioxide (SO2) than burning coal does, it releases more fine particulates (PM 2.5) and Volatile Organic Compounds. These pose a particularly serious risk of lung and heart disease to communities living in close proximity to power stations.

A Climate Change Disaster

Believe it or not, power stations burning wood emit up to 50% more carbon dioxide emissions than those burning coal. Companies and policy makers ignore this carbon, claiming that biomass is green because new trees grow back in the place of those which have been cut down. Yet it tends to take decades before a tree matures and that can happen. And when forests are destroyed and turned into monoculture plantations, much of the carbon will simply stay in the atmosphere. Such a carbon spike is a disaster at a time when scientists have shown that human-created emissions and levels of atmospheric CO2 must be reduced rapidly if we want to have any hope of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

Time to Take DRAXtic Action

In July 2012, Drax (the UK’s largest and dirtiest coal-fired power station) confirmed that it plans to convert half of its capacity to burning biomass – making it the biggest biomass-burning power station in the world.

Drax is getting some good PR from this supposed effort towards “going green.” The reality is that switching to biomass will allow Drax to keep running (and polluting) long into the future, when it would otherwise fail EU air regulations in regards to sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions and be forced to shut down by 2016. It is apparent then, that energy companies like Drax are not investing in biomass conversions because they want to burn less coal and save the planet. Just the opposite in fact – partial biomass conversions will allow some power stations to burn coal for much longer than they would otherwise have been able to.

Drax has also been able to persuade the Government to grant generous subsidies towards biomass conversions, securing £672 million for itself in one year alone. These lucrative subsidies, in the form of Renewable Obligations Certificates (ROCs), make conversions all the more attractive to energy companies. But it will be us, the consumer, who bears the brunt of these costs. As energy companies using “non-renewable” sources of energy are required to buy ROCs, the costs will inevitably be passed on to us through our fuel bills. This comes at a time when, although energy companies are making record profits, communities are experiencing rising fuel poverty and difficulty paying their bills.

On top of this, Drax has recently secured a £100 million loan towards the financing of its conversion from the Green Investment Bank (GIB). The GIB was set up by the UK government to help finance so-called environmentally friendly projects, but its largest investment to date has been in big biomass. It is expected to channel another £500 million towards biomass and biofuel projects, a massive contribution towards the financing of this quickly expanding industry.

Join us on the 24th of April at the Drax AGM to protest against Coal – Biomass Conversions!

It is clear that both coal and biomass destroy the environment, people’s health and livelihood, and the climate. Painting these industries green is not the solution. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change what we really need is a major reduction in energy use, investment in energy efficiency, and support for genuine renewable energy such as sustainable wind and solar power.

Biofuelwatch is calling for a protest outside the Drax AGM in April to demonstrate against it becoming the largest consumer of biomass in the world and continuing its polluting ways for decades to come.

Please visit: http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/alerts/drax-protest/ for more information.

We are also running an e-alert to demand that the Green Investment Bank stop funding big biomass and invite you to take part here: http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2013/green-bank-alert/

For further information about this and other issues, visit our website: www.biofuelwatch.org.uk

Email us at biofuelwatch[at]gmail.com

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