Drax qualifies for subsidy because under EU rules, biomass is rated as ‘zero carbon’ – on the basis that trees used can be grown back.
Yesterday, the plant’s spokesman Andrew Brown refused to say how much subsidy it is being paid now, claiming this information was ‘commercially sensitive’.
But a Mail on Sunday analysis shows that in 2014, with two biomass units operational, the subsidy rose to at least ¬£340 million – about three-quarters of Drax’s gross profit. The figure was calculated from the plant’s own public declarations of how much power it has generated from biomass, and known details of how much the subsidies are worth per MW/hr.
Now, with a third 650MW biomass furnace due to be lit in the next few weeks, the subsidy will grow again, in step with Drax’s output. By 2016, the total it has received will be well over ¬£1 billion, with about half a billion being paid annually.
Drax is proud of its green credentials, and claims that it uses sawdust from sawmills and ‘waste wood’ or ‘leftovers’ – branches and smaller sections – discarded by commercial logging operations.
Enviva Ahoskie are chopping down hard wood forest in North Carolina to make wood pellets for fuel for the Drax company in the UK
In a promotional video for Bloomberg Business last month, the only pellet source that managing director Andy Koss mentioned was the sawdust. He said: ‘We take the sawdust that’s left over from sawmills that are cutting the big trees that go into house-building.’
In fact, according to Drax’s own website, last year sawdust made up just 9.5 per cent of its pellets. A much bigger source is American hardwood trees – such as oak, sweetgum, cypress, maple and beech – supplied by US firm Enviva, which sells Drax a million tons of pellets a year, a quarter of the plant’s 2014 supply. Drax claims the wood it is supplied with is ‘sustainable’.
However, the Dogwood Alliance, a US environmental group, has investigated Enviva operations on the ground several times and found evidence to the contrary.
Late last month, Dogwood campaigner Adam Macon travelled with colleagues to the Enviva pellet plant at Ahoskie, North Carolina, where he saw piles of hardwood trunks 40 feet high being fed into the plant’s hopper – the start of the process where the trees are pulped and turned into pellets. These could not be described as ‘leftovers’.
Macon recorded the number plate details of an empty truck leaving the plant and followed it to a forested area 20 miles away. He waited as numerous other trucks, laden with tree trunks, left the forest for Ahoskie. Then, the truck he had been following left too, carrying its load back to the plant. The next step was to visit the area being cut. ‘To avoid detection, we trekked in from the back, through a forested swamp,’ Macon said.
‘We trudged through mud and water up to our knees. Wildlife buzzed, chirped and splashed all around as huge hardwood cypress trees towered above – a testament to the incredible biodiversity that exists in this region.’
Finally they reached the cut: ‘All that was left were the stumps of once great trees. They had destroyed an irreplaceable wetland treasure.’
MACON described how on another occasion last year, he hid closer to the actual cutting. ‘We saw the trees being cut, all the way to the bottom, then being put into a machine that cut off all the branches. The trunks were loaded into trucks, which we followed to Ahoskie.’
This operation is not illegal. Although they are home to dozens of species of animals and birds, some of them endangered, the forests are not protected. But US environmentalists claim that demand for biomass is hugely increasing the rate at which they are felled.
Yesterday, Drax spokesman Andrew Brown denied this, saying that at the sites where Enviva operates, it takes only ‘waste wood’ – the leftovers after trees are sent to sawmills to produce timber for building. He emphasised that the plant’s wood comes from branches and tree tops, or whole trees that were diseased, too thin or too twisted to use for other purposes, claiming that areas would never be felled just to make pellets.
He added that it was much better to use the ‘leftovers’ for pellets than to let them rot, which would ‘release CO2 and potentially methane, without any net gain to society’.
In fact, the US Environmental Protection Agency reported in November that hardly any methane is released by rotting wood.
Enviva spokesman Kent Jenkins made similar assertions, saying: ‘You asked whether we take an entire harvest from a clear-cut of bottomland forests. No.’
However, The Mail on Sunday spoke last week to a senior forester at a North Carolina wood firm which has frequently worked for Enviva, clear-cutting areas from 20 to 80 acres. The forester, who asked us to protect his identity, said: ‘Most of this wood is no good for sawmills. You might get the odd log or two, but very few in the swamps I’ve cut. You might not get any that are any use for that. It’s very possible they will all just go for pellets or chips.’
His comments support claims that biomass is hastening forest decline. He added that the hardwood species that were cut might never grow back, because owners seeded other, fast-growing species in their place.
LOOK HUHNE’S MAKING A KILLING FROM THE BIOMASS BONANZA
The disgraced former Energy Secretary Chris Huhne was a key political architect of Britain’s drive for biomass – and is now the European chief of a US pellet company which is seeking UK markets.
Lib Dem Huhne, left – who was jailed in 2012 for persuading his ex-wife to take his speeding points – is a director of Zilkha Biomass, which is currently completing a huge ‘black wood pellet’ plant in Selma, Alabama.
Zilkha already has a contract to supply a power station near Paris, and a spokesman said it was ‘absolutely interested’ in doing business in the UK. The firm’s website boasts of Huhne’s former Cabinet role, saying he was responsible for ‘setting up a new energy-saving framework’ as well as ‘market reform to spur low carbon investment’.
Huhne declined to disclose his salary, saying: ‘Biomass is one of the cheapest ways of generating low-carbon electricity … all I am doing is working in a business that I have followed and been interested in for years.’
According to Drax, the original forests grow back naturally.
In his video presentation, Drax’s Andy Koss claimed the firm was so green that its contribution to cutting emissions was the equivalent of taking three million cars off the road.
But a new study led by Dr Thomas Buchholz of the Spatial Informatics Group, a team of environmental experts and scientists, casts doubt on this. His findings are based on the official Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) model for calculating emissions, known as BEAC. This weighs factors including harvesting, transport and emissions from the furnaces – when pellets are burnt they produce much more CO2 than natural gas or coal – as well as new tree growth.
Dr Buchholz’s conclusions are devastating. The official DECC standard says biomass plants should emit a maximum of 285kg of carbon dioxide for every 1MW/hr of electricity. But the research found that averaged over 40 years, Drax’s net emissions will be more than four times as high.
All that was left were the stumps of once great trees. They had destroyed an irreplaceable wetland treasure Dogwood campaigner Adam Macon
Enviva’s Kent Jenkins claimed the study ’employed faulty assumptions and flawed methodology’, and should be disregarded because it was commissioned by the Southern Environmental Law Center in Virginia – a ‘vocal critic’ of the company.
Drax’s Brown cited another study from Duke University in North Carolina, which suggested biomass might cut emissions. He did not mention that this was funded by forestry companies, including Enviva. This study also admits it does not consider how long it takes for CO2 to be re-absorbed by new growth.
The UK government is taking the Buchholz study seriously. A DECC spokesman said it was ‘looking to expand our evidence base on the carbon impacts of bioenergy’ and had already commissioned further research to evaluate the findings.
Meanwhile, opposition by American environmentalists is building.
Dr Mary S Booth, a biomass expert and director of US think-tank the Partnership for Policy Integrity, said: ‘UK policymakers need to recognize that wood-fired power plants are a disaster for forests and the climate, and abolish bioenergy subsidies immediately.’
Dogwood Alliance director Danna Smith added: ‘It’s not the carbon emissions that are disappearing, it’s the forests – and there’s no guarantee they will ever come back.’