The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have called on the Government to cancel plans to subsidise burning whole trees in coal power stations.

They claim that according to the Government’s own figures, generating power from typical conifer trees results in 49% more emissions than burning coal.

The report was produced in a response to a decision by Drax last month to convert three of its six generating units to biogas at its North Yorkshire coal-fired power station turning it into one of the largest renewable energy plants in Europe.  

The units will use almost seven million tonnes of plant material a year and Drax has confirmed it will import 90% of its biomass from countries such as the US.

The group wants the Government to focus on building a small-scale bioenergy sector based on sustainable UK feedstocks, including wood waste and arisings from forestry, as well as continued investment in different types of renewable energy.

Friends of the Earth’s biofuels campaigner Kenneth Richter said: “Burning imported trees is worse for the climate than burning coal – it’s absurd that the Government is spending millions of pounds subsidising it. Ministers should spend our money on sustainable solutions to our power problems, such as cutting waste and getting clean British energy from the wind, waves and sun.”

Greenpeace UK policy director Doug Parr added: “It’s time to end the fiction that burning wood is carbon free. If we don’t get the arithmetic right on the real impacts of biomass energy, our carbon budgets will be more like carbon fraud.”

However, Drax claims that the report misses the point because it does not take into account that most of the biomass used in electricity generation comes from waste wood. This would mean most of any tree harvested stays as wood and retains its carbon.

A spokesperson for Drax said: “It is absurd to suggest that using sustainable biomass is dirtier than fossil fuels. Unlike fossil fuels, burning biomass to produce electricity can only release carbon which was absorbed while the biomass was growing.

“It is part of a closed cycle but actually if more material is planted than is extracted the net amount of carbon in the atmosphere is reduced and a carbon credit is created.

The spokesperson argued that as long as the wood comes from sustainable forests, importing and processing the wood would not damage the climate.

“Even including all the carbon emissions of the supply chain from planting, harvesting, transporting and processing, using biomass delivers huge carbon savings relative to fossil fuels. Provided bioenergy comes from sustainably managed forests where growth is in excess of harvest there is no ‘carbon debt’, not even in the short term.”

The company also questioned the premise that bioenergy was unnecessary since other, zero carbon, renewables would meet the country’s energy needs.

“Bioenergy has a special role in the energy mix because it is available when it is needed, it is not intermittent and it is reliable.

“Most other renewables fulfil a different role in the mix because they can’t be relied upon to be available to meet demand at any given time. The choice is usually, therefore, between biomass and fossil fuels, not biomass and some unspecified zero carbon renewable,” said the company, said the spokesperson.

Conor McGlone

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