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Taking DRAXtic action on biomass

On 24 April, Biofuelwatch and 16 supporting organizations will be gathering outside the London AGM of Drax Plc, the company running Britain’s largest power station, to say no to big biomass.

Drax Plc say they are converting to burn ‘zero-carbon, renewable biomass’ but we at Biofuelwatch say they are cashing in on subsidies to replace one disaster with another. We are asking people to join us on the 24 April to take DRAXtic action on deforestation, landgrabbing and climate change.

Why campaign against this company’s efforts to go green?

forest felling in the US
Forest clear-felling in the southern US Dogwood Alliance

The short answer is because Drax’s conversion to biomass is about painting a green façade onto Britain’s biggest polluter to keep it operating and generating profit for its shareholders. Biomass emits up to 50 per cent more carbon per unit of electricity than coal – yes, that’s more carbon, not less.

Add to this the fact that the wood they import often comes from the clear-felling of ancient biodiverse forests in the US and Canada, and the fact that these forests are often replaced by monoculture plantations of fast-growing trees (turning our carbon sinks and biodiversity banks into cash crops) and you’ve got a big biomess.

What will they get from the government for all this devastation? A slap on the back and subsidies to the tune of more than £3 billion ($4.6 billion) in the name of meeting renewables targets and ‘keeping the lights on’. And who pays for these subsidies? Bill payers do – at a time of rising fuel poverty and record energy company profits.

Drax as a power station is a dinosaur operating at less that 40 per cent efficiency. Under European Union pollution directives it should have a very limited life-span. Instead, Drax and four other coal-fired power stations are being given a new lease of live through biomass conversions and co-firing.

Coal to biomass conversions: what’s it all about?

Under the guise of ‘renewable energy’, burning wood in power stations has become a massive growth industry in Britain – so big that current plans for power station conversions will see six times as much wood as Britain produces in a year being burnt, and twice as many wood pellets as were produced world-wide in 2010. Planning consent has already been granted to five coal power stations to convert, either partly or completely, to biomass. The biggest is Drax in Yorkshire, set to become the world’s biggest biomass power station.

protest poster
The protest will be held on 24 April Biofuelwatch

So what are the issues then?

Current plans will involve burning trees and other wood products on an unprecedented scale. So far, most wood pellets imported to Britain have come from Canada and the southern US, with some sourced from the Baltic States, Russia, Portugal and South Africa, where native forests rich in wildlife and carbon are being destroyed. The rate of destruction will become much worse as demand grows, and 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.

Power stations burning wood emit up to 50 per cent more carbon dioxide than those burning coal, but companies and policy makers get away with ignoring this carbon, claiming that biomass is renewable and low-carbon because new trees grow back in the place of ones which have been cut down. But it takes decades to grow a mature tree and just minutes to burn one, creating a massive ‘carbon debt’, where carbon dioxide that was once stored in trees is stored exactly where we don’t want it – in the atmosphere.

Green Investment Bank – bank on biodiversity, not biomass!

In December last year the Green Investment Bank (GIB) gave Drax a £100 million loan towards its conversion. The GIB was set up by the British government to help finance so-called environmentally friendly projects, but its first big investment was big biomass. It’s expected to channel another £500 million ($153.8 million) towards bioenergy projects, a massive contribution towards the financing of this quickly expanding industry.

Tell the GIB to stop banking on big biomass here.

Join us on the 24 April at the Drax AGM to protest against Coal – Biomass Conversions! Find out how to take DRAXtic Action here at the Biofuelwatch website.

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  1. #1 Warren Dexter 12 Apr 13

    it is obvious that the logic is on the side of the environmentalists and yet their argument is also illustrative of the hypocrisy of their stance against pollution. The pollutants from the very best, most carbon-rich fuels are the lowest possible on earth by the nature of the energy stored in very condensed forms.
    Engineering of coal, natural gas, or even oil fired power generation plants will always be better than wood or other soil cultivated fuels. This is because of the open cellular formations in plant matter that is naturally condensed over time and is turned into, guess what... Coal and Oil and Natural gas.

    These policy makers are just trying to do their best amidst a firestorm of bad information and bad science. When we realize that both sides have a point, 1. we need electricity and 2. we have to be careful about what we spew into the air, we will see lots of ways to use science and technology to make cleaner systems, engage in more recycling and generate more energy... count on it.

    See good idea companies that turn waste into fuel like and you will see the future of GOOD thinking, also look at the google results for energy recovery, CHP (Combined heat and power) and Waste co-firing with fossil fuels to reduce pollution from existing coal plants.

  2. #2 jobinusa 13 Apr 13

    2 points that should be made: (1) certifiably sustainable supplies of woody biomass can be used in appropriately scaled and sized combined heat and power projects and (2) such sustainable forestry waste and, more importantly, agricultural and agribusiness waste can be converted into bio-coal, a drop-in substitute for thermal coal. The latter category of feedstocks includes coffee and rice hulls, sugar cane leaves, invader bush, elephant grass and other invasive grasses. It should also be possible to grow inedible energy crops for this purpose--i.e. to provide feedstock for bio-coal production--on genuine wastelands so as not to use precious croplands (including so-called marginal lands) on which desperately needed food crops can be grown.

  3. #3 Robert Palgrave 14 Apr 13

    When the Green Investment Bank (GIB) heard of the Biofuelwatch campaign to challenge their loan of £100m to Drax for biomass conversion, they prepared a set of counter arguments. Part of the preparation was to have an answer to the question - is the loan actually going to help Drax continue to burn coal?

    Since Drax will be running half on coal and half on biomass by 2016, and there are no plans to split the company in half and keep the two separate, I think it's very clear that the GIB loan (and the much larger annual renewable energy subsidy) might very well be going towards coal burning.

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