In August 2021, the arrival of the 229m long, Ultra Lynx bulk carrier in the Port of Tyne, raised eyebrows from the casual observer, eating chips on North Shields Fishquay. This vast cargo ship having crossed the Atlantic from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was then berthed and discharged at the purpose built storage facility. It then took 50 trains to move the 62,000 metric tonnes of biomass pellets to Drax power station at Selby in North Yorkshire. These shipments continue to Drax and the nearby, similarly biomass-burning, power station at Lynemouth.
Here we read the words sustainable and renewable, referred to in the same sentence as biomass fuel, derived from forestry in the Southern states of the USA, including Louisiana and Mississippi. Drax operates three wood-mills linked to the port of Baton Rouge, in a tidy operation spanning the Atlantic. Indeed Drax, supplies 12% of the ’sustainable’ electricity to the UK. The imports are now in excess of 5 million tonnes since April 2015.
Biomass as a winner?
At a time when Russian gas supplies are a questionable source of ethical power generation and the government seeks to bolster alternative supplies; biomass fuel appears to be a winner bringing an estimated 700 jobs and 600 million to the UK economy.
However, there are observations, that shine a light on this ‘green’ fuel. It is said that wood is a sustainable fuel and described by some as carbon neutral; the carbon captured from the atmosphere by photosynthesis is simply released back in a ‘carbon cycle’, with a net zero carbon dioxide increase. The think tank Ember, adds another perspective on the true cost compared to coal itself, the very material mined and burned in Drax and Lynemouth power stations, before their conversion to biomass. Per kilowatt hour, burning wood pellets emits more greenhouse gas, than coal; the former is less rich in energy as it is less dense. Think of the speed logs combust on a fire compared to coal. This is just the beginning of the carbon accounting required to view the overall emissions to produce electricity from a power station, some of which is not factored into the carbon footprint of the fuel itself.
Drax receives billions of pounds in UK subsidy, to produce this energy from biomass pellets. To focus in on the concerns this fuel creates in the actual carbon footprint, the millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere think in terms of diesel fuel. Imagine the volume required to harvest and process wood in the USA to dry wood pellets, easy to move and ship through low water content pellets. Then add the fuel for a bulk carrier and 50 trains to Drax, before final combustion. Drax earned £893m in government subsidies in 2021.
Coal power is the single biggest contributor to climate change and Biomass was a step change in that realisation, but will have to be phased out as soon as possible, as it too is unsustainable. The payments made to Drax and other power stations, would be better spent on renewables such as wind, solar and tide. The research and investment required to make this sector grow and develop, the innovation and design required to capture carbon dioxide will be the lifeblood of local jobs from university to factory in the North. It would be better to call biomass pellets a ‘spent-fuel’ and admit the true cost in carbon emissions as we sink deeper into this energy crisis.