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Drax to ‘Begin one of the Most Expensive Energy Projects in the World – And UK Public Will Pay Three Times Over’

Through its expensive and harmful bioenergy with carbon capture scheme (BECCS), Drax will impose a triple cost on taxpayers in the form of public money for subsidies, higher energy bills, and more extreme weather, the CEO of the Environmental Justice Foundation argues

aerial view of Drax Power Station taken August 2022. Photo: A.P.S. (UK) / Alamy
An aerial view of Drax Power Station in August 2022. Photo: A.P.S. (UK)/Alamy

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Drax power station burns wood pellets made of trees – a process known as biomass energy – imported from US, Canada, Brazil, and Europe for electricity production. It is the largest producer of carbon emissions in the UK.

The company, which has four sites across England and Scotland and produces around 4% of the UK’s power and 9% of its renewable electricity, started burning biomass in 2010. In 2023, it fully transitioned away from coal.

Drax now claims that it is “enabling a zero carbon, lower cost energy future”. But this is simply not true. 

Biomass has been touted as a carbon-neutral alternative to burning fossil fuels for decades, but burning wood releases more carbon dioxide per unit than coal does and, in many cases, requires large monoculture tree farms, made up of rows of single species, often converted from biodiverse forests. These plantations can have devastating impacts for wildlife and the land rights and food security of local and indigenous communities.  

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In Papua, Indonesia – for example – the Medco Group, funded by green financing, cleared large tracts of rainforest for timber plantations to fuel its biomass plant, non-profit newsroom, The Gecko Project reported in June 2023.

Much of this land overlapped with the ancestral territory of the indigenous Marind people, traditional hunter-gatherers. Compared to the natural forest it once was, the plantation supports less biodiversity in the area, so the Marind people reported that they found it significantly harder to source traditional foods – often returning empty-handed after hunting trips and being unable to harvest anything from groves of sago, due to mud and chemicals from the plantation. 


Growing New Trees Does Not Mean Burning Them Is Sustainable

The fact that suppliers can grow new trees does not mean burning them for energy is sustainable. These biomass schemes do not align with keeping global heating below 1.5ºC, and will likely result in net increases in carbon released into the atmosphere.

Natural forests, unlike the monoculture plantations, are an essential carbon sink, removing and storing large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, playing a natural role in climate mitigation.

Once a tree is felled and burned, it is estimated to take between 44 to 104 years to recover the carbon that was stored by it. The UK’s own goal to reach net zero by 2050 is only 26 years away – we don’t have a century to spare.

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Drax burns the equivalent of 27 million trees annually – twice the number of trees in the New Forest. The cutting and shipping of trees to Yorkshire across the Atlantic in ships likely running on diesel will never be sustainable, but the story goes further than this.

Multiple investigations have found that Drax uses pellets from whole logs sourced from important forests, including taking more than 40,000 tonnes of wood from old growth forests in British Columbia in 2023.

This happens alongside other shipments from hardwood forests in the south-eastern US, as a whistleblower from Enviva, the US company Drax sources pellets from, reported in 2022.

Old-growth forests in Estonia and Latvia have been so degraded by companies including Graanul Invest, which supplies pellets to Drax, in the last decade they can no longer be considered old-growth.


Public Will Pay Three Times Over For New Drax Project

In 2022, Biofuelwatch reported that Drax’s operations were being propped up with around £1.66 million in public money each day and, despite the expense, the UK Government in January approved a bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) scheme at Drax.

BECCS theoretically involves the capture and permanent storage of carbon emitted from processes where biomass is burned and converted to energy. However, this technology is unproven, meaning this scheme will send even more trees and cash up in smoke. 

It could also be one of the most expensive energy projects in the world and the British public will be paying three times over – in tax money for subsidies, higher energy bills, and the impacts of the climate crisis. To the energy bill payer, it could cost as much as £43.4 billion over the next 25 years or £1.7 billion annually.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is uncertain in general, as most projects underperform or fail, as shown by a 2022 study from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis which studied 13 cases of CCS projects that were attempted between 1986 and 2019.

CCS also does not capture all emissions from power generation, as the technology is still being developed and would require far more funding – money that could go to tested, proven approaches like clean energy.

Including CCS and BECCS schemes in climate plans is elaborate greenwashing to put off the upgrade to truly clean energy. We can, and must, leave burning fossil fuels and forests to the history books. 


The True Cost Of Ignoring the Climate

One needs to look no further than the UK to see the cost of political dithering on clean energy.

The summer of 2022 brought the country’s first recorded 40ºC day, unprecedented heat-related deaths, wildfires, and pressure on the country’s infrastructure. Ongoing severe flooding has affected much of the country, and sea-level rise poses a severe threat to coastal communities’ homes and economies.

The Holderness coast in East Yorkshire, known as the fastest eroding coastline in Europe, loses an average of two metres each year to the sea, forcing people to evacuate their homes. 

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The UK is woefully underprepared for the changes to come.

Investing in just green solutions, such as locally owned and generated renewable energy projects like community-owned wind and solar farms, is good for the environment and offers a low cost, proven enterprise with huge benefits to energy security.

Community-based renewable energy projects provide this security by making people less reliant on volatile energy markets, or at risk of buying from autocrats. They are also a source of reliable power in the face of worsening climate impacts – one example being a community-owned microgrid in Puerto Rico which provided solar energy to a fire station during Hurricane Fiona when the central grid failed.

Renewables would increase our resilience to climate impacts, including by preventing them in the first place. They are conveniently also the world’s cheapest source of energy.

The UK Government must reverse its decision to approve a BECCS scheme at Drax. We cannot afford to waste people’s hard-earned money, nor do we have the time to bank the future of our climate on an untested and unsustainable scheme.

The real solutions to the crisis are ready now – it’s time to take advantage of them.

Steve Trent is the CEO of the Environmental Justice Foundation


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