ROSS CLARK: Madness that burning USA wood is counted as 'green energy'

ROSS CLARK: Madness that burning USA wood is counted as 'green energy'

12/16/2021

ROSS CLARK: It’s madness that burning wood shipped in from America is counted as green energy

My bet is that when you hear the term ‘renewable energy’ the first thing that pops into your head is images of wind turbines or solar panels.

What you don’t think of is the chimneys of Drax Power Station in South Yorkshire pumping out clouds of smoke from the burning of wood pellets sourced from trees felled thousands of miles away in North America.

Yet as 50 MPs of all parties pointed out in a letter to the business and energy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng this week, government policy perversely counts this scenario – which happens day after day at Britain’s biggest power station – as a zero-carbon form of energy.

The MPs, led by Conservative Peter Bottomley, Father of the House of Commons, have demanded that the Government withdraws subsidies for wood burning – and stops trying to pretend it is contributing to Britain’s efforts to become ‘net zero’ by 2050.

‘Biomass’ – as we are supposed to call wood and other vegetable matter nowadays – accounted for 29 per cent of what the Government calls ‘renewable’ energy in 2019. 

Drax is the world’s largest biomass-burning power station and alone supplies 12 per cent of the UK’s renewable energy.

Yet to call burning wood ‘zero carbon’, as the government does, flies in the face of reality.

According to a report by the think tank Chatham House in October, burning wood pellets in the UK sourced from U.S. forests emits between 13 million and 16 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year – equivalent to the amount emitted by between six and seven million petrol cars.

In fact, for every unit of energy produced (measured in kilowatt-hours), burning wood in a power station emits about ten per cent more carbon dioxide than burning coal. 

How on earth have we arrived at the crazy situation where, in the name of achieving net zero emission targets, we are burning a fuel transported halfway across the world that’s even more polluting than the coal it’s replaced?

My bet is that when you hear the term ‘renewable energy’ the first thing that pops into your head is images of wind turbines or solar panels. What you don’t think of is the chimneys of Drax Power Station in South Yorkshire (pictured) pumping out clouds of smoke from the burning of wood pellets sourced from trees felled thousands of miles away in North America

How on earth have we arrived at the crazy situation where, in the name of achieving net zero emission targets, we are burning a fuel transported halfway across the world that’s even more polluting than the coal it’s replaced?

Huge sums were lavished on Drax by the Government to convert from coal to wood pellets – money paid by all of us through our energy bills. 

As the MPs say in their letter, they ‘cannot understand why it was decided to give Drax £4 billion of subsidies in electricity bills to create even more carbon dioxide’.

And while government handouts for new biomass plants have been reduced in recent years, existing contracts mean we will be subsidising biomass plants until 2037, through our bills.

The point is that wood burning is only carbon-neutral if you fall for the government conceit that the carbon dioxide emitted in the process will eventually be re-absorbed by trees which are planted in place of those felled for wood pellets.

But it takes minutes to burn a tree – and decades for one to grow in its place and re-absorb all that carbon dioxide. 

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2018 concluded that the ‘payback time’ for this carbon debt ranges from 44 to 104 years, depending on forest type.

Some argue that wood burning is carbon-neutral if you burn thinnings, offcuts and unwanted branches in that they would be left to rot anyway. 

Yet as the Chatham House study revealed, just over half of the wood pellets imported to be burned in UK power stations come from whole trees – not just trimmings.

If the forests being felled for biomass were in Britain there would be outrage. We would be able to see the environmental destruction for what it is. 

But as the forests are in North America the Government perhaps hopes it is a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. 

As well as emissions from burning the wood itself, there are also emissions from machinery used to fell the trees, to turn wood into pellets, and from the ships used to transport the material across the Atlantic.

Nor are carbon emissions the only problem. Wood burning is also a major source of particulate pollution – tiny specks of matter which can damage the heart and lungs.

It is true that particulate pollution from burning wood at the very high temperatures of power station boilers is much lower than burning wood in domestic stoves or an open fire. 

As 50 MPs of all parties pointed out in a letter to the business and energy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng (above) this week, government policy perversely counts this scenario – which happens day after day at Britain’s biggest power station – as a zero-carbon form of energy

But the government has been subsidising us to install wood-burning stoves, too. Some of them qualify for payments under the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), which pays homeowners thousands of pounds to heat their homes with wood rather than fossil fuels.

According to the Government’s own Air Quality Expert Group between six and 25 per cent of particulate pollution in urban areas in winter comes from wood-burning.

London and other cities are punishing drivers of diesel cars with eye-watering daily charges on the grounds that they are polluting the air – yet at the same time the Government is paying homeowners to buy filthy wood stoves.

It is nothing short of madness.

Of course we all want clean energy and it is in our interests to cut carbon emissions, but the Government’s unilateral, self-imposed deadline of reaching net zero by 2050 is leading it to seek desperate solutions which will actually damage rather than improve the environment.

Meanwhile, of course, China shows little sign of abating its coal-burning power stations – it demanded, and got, a commitment from the COP26 climate conference only to ‘phase down’ emissions from coal, whatever that means.

In Britain we have already gone a long way to reducing carbon emissions from electricity production by replacing dirty coal plants with much cleaner gas ones.

We are generating significant quantities of electricity from wind and solar energy — or at least we are when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. 

As well as emissions from burning the wood itself, there are also emissions from machinery used to fell the trees, to turn wood into pellets, and from the ships used to transport the material across the Atlantic. [File image] 

On a good day, more than half our electricity can come from wind and solar, but when the sun went down yesterday and the wind dropped, that had fallen to just eight per cent.

We certainly need a more reliable form of low-carbon energy, but burning biomass isn’t the answer. The only way we are really going to decarbonise our electricity sector is via nuclear energy.

Nuclear already generates a reliable baseload of at least 15 per cent of our electricity. 

However, all but one of our nuclear power stations are due to reach the end of their lives over the next decade — and the new station at Hinkley Point C in Somerset is not even open yet.

Nuclear has gained a bad name in recent years partly because the Fukushima disaster in Japan ten years ago reminded us of the economic devastation which can follow a nuclear accident – and that such accidents can occur in developed countries, not just countries with reckless governments such as the former Soviet Union.

On a good day, more than half our electricity can come from wind and solar, but when the sun went down yesterday and the wind dropped, that had fallen to just eight per cent

There is also the high cost of electricity from Hinkley Point C – whose operators have been guaranteed a hugely high price per megawatt-hour when it does start to generate electricity – and the fact that the project has relied on Chinese money when relations with China are strained to say the least.

But if we want to decarbonise our electricity industry there really is no option other than to go nuclear. 

Rolls-Royce recently won the backing of a consortium of private investors to develop a series of small modular nuclear reactors which should allay some of the fears over nuclear accidents and that could be generating electricity by 2030.

That is a far better direction for energy policy than paying out billions for ‘zero carbon’ wood-burning power stations which are, in fact, spewing out more carbon dioxide than the coal plants they replaced.

Ross Clark’s novel on climate change, The Denial, is published by Lume Books.

Source: Read Full Article