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January 18, 2024

‘Zero carbon’ biomass power plants are ‘accounting trick’, says think-tank

Biomass fuel storage tanks at Drax’s Selby power station.
The company dominates UK biomass generation, which burns mostly imported wood pellets from the US and Canada, the IEA report says. (Photo: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)
Biomass fuel storage tanks at Drax’s Selby power station. The company dominates UK biomass generation, which burns mostly imported wood pellets from the US and Canada, the IEA report says. (Photo: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

An Institute of Economic Affairs report says the UK government’s decision to convert coal-fired power plants to biomass is flawed as it ignores emissions from wood pellet production

Converting coal-fired power plants in the UK to biomass-fired plants is creating “more carbon dioxide than burning fossil fuels”, according to a report by the Institute of Economic Affairs, a think-tank that supports free market economics.

Since 2005, the UK government has converted 3.2 gigawatts of coal-generating capacity to biomass, and three power plants have been fully or partly converted to run on wood pellets rather than coal.

Despite releasing emissions, burning wood pellets is considered “zero carbon” in the UK because “biomass smokestack emissions are officially credited to the country where the trees are grown”, the report says. Critics have dubbed this an “accounting trick”, as it may reduce the UK’s recorded emissions but not global emissions, the IEA says.

Furthermore, burning wood can produce more CO2 per megawatt hour of energy than fossil fuels, including coal, the report says. “Wood and coal emit similar amounts of carbon dioxide relative to their energy content, but when the full chain is considered from fuel production to electricity generation, wood-fired generation is usually responsible for more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity,” writes Christopher Snowdon, the report’s author and IEA head of lifestyle economics.

Even if the UK government committed to replanting the trees used for wood pellets, “the time it takes new trees to absorb the carbon emitted by the trees that have been burnt is between 44 and 104 years”, the report says.

Biomass generation in the UK is dominated by power company Drax, which burns mostly imported wood pellets from the US and Canada, the IEA report says. It estimates that Drax imported 8.2mn tonnes of wood pellets in 2022.

“The subsidies paid under the contracts for difference and the Renewables Obligation are due to expire in March 2027, by which time Drax will have received an estimated £11bn from the taxpayer,” the report says, referring to UK government incentive schemes for renewable energy generation.

Drax did not respond to Sustainable Views’ request for comment.

Snowdon also lists “economic arguments” as to why the burning of biomass is inefficient, such as the falling costs of solar and wind generation and the reliance of the biomass industry on government subsidies.

The IEA suggests instead of biomass, natural gas should be used as a “dispatchable” energy source alongside renewables such as wind and solar. “Gas is cheaper [than wood biomass] and produces much less carbon dioxide from the outset,” it says.

Other energy experts say energy storage, such as batteries or pumped-hydro storage, will reduce the need for dispatchable energy sources, which can include fossil fuels, biomass or nuclear.

According to a briefing by investigative journalism platform DeSmog, the IEA has received funding from oil and gas companies including BP and ExxonMobil, and has supported North Sea oil drilling and natural gas fracking.

The report is available to read here.

A service from the Financial Times