An interesting piece from The New Yorker on biomass and the Drax power station.
In the North of England, in a tiny village called Drax, there is a power plant, also called Drax. The name is ominous: the sad honk of a mistake, ending in a hazardous-chemical “X.” In the taxi there, from my hotel in nearby Selby, in North Yorkshire, we travelled through flat, green countryside in cool, gray weather, until all at once the plant came horribly into view—it attacked the horizon, beyond enormous, beyond ugly, a row of twelve concrete cooling-tower children, each standing three hundred and fifty feet tall, but dwarfed by their mean and looming dad, an eight-hundred-and-fifty-foot chimney.
“Dear God,” I said to the taxi-driver. “How utterly terrifying!”
“The chimney is the tallest one in all of the United Kingdom,” the driver said. He was sixtyish, jolly but absent. His car smelled of ashtray. “It’s so tall that they used to get the acid rain from it over there in—well, in Scandinavia and the like!” He snickered. “They weren’t too pleased about that, Sweden.” He dragged out the long “E.”
“Well,” I said, trying to match his spirit, “I suppose they all should have thought about that before they decided to live there!”
He loved this. He slapped his knee. We were pulling up to the entrance of Drax: neat corporate shrubbery, fencing, a small reception building. “Should have thought of that before they lived there, heh heh heh,” he said as I paid the fare. “Have fun at Drax, luv,” he called after me.
I had come to Drax to understand how this power station is “enabling a zero carbon, lower cost energy future,” as described by the annual report of the Drax Group, which operates four renewable-energy plants across England and Scotland. The Drax plant, which dates back to 1974, used to burn coal, but it has spent the last few years transitioning to “sustainably sourced biomass,” more commonly known as wood pellets.
In essence, Drax is a gigantic woodstove. In 2019, Drax emitted more than fifteen million tons of CO2, which is roughly equivalent to the greenhouse-gas emissions produced by three million typical passenger vehicles in one year. Of those emissions, Drax reported that 12.8 million tons were “biologically sequestered carbon” from biomass (wood). In 2020, the numbers increased: 16.5 million tons, 13.2 million from biomass. Meanwhile, the Drax Group calls itself “the biggest decarbonization project in Europe,” delivering “a decarbonized economy and healthy forests.”
The apparent conflict between what Drax does and what it says it does has its origins in the United Nations Conference on Climate Change of 1997. The conference established the Kyoto Protocol, which was intended to reduce emissions and “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) classified wind and solar power as renewable-energy sources. But wood-burning was harder to categorize: It’s renewable, technically, because trees grow back. In accounting for greenhouse gases, the I.P.C.C. sorts emissions into different “sectors,” which include land-use and energy production. It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time, the I.P.C.C. was concerned that if they counted emissions from harvesting trees in the land sector, it would be duplicative to count emissions from the burning of pellets in the energy sector.
According to William Moomaw, an emeritus professor of international environmental policy at Tufts University, and lead author of several I.P.C.C. reports, negotiators thought of biomass as only a minor part of energy production—small-scale enough that forest regrowth could theoretically keep up with the incidental harvesting of trees. “At the time these guidelines were drawn up, the I.P.C.C. did not imagine a situation where millions of tons of wood would be shipped four thousand miles away to be burned in another country,” Moomaw said.
In the end, negotiators decided only to count land-use emissions. “But these emissions are very difficult to estimate, and the United States and Canada aren’t even part of the Kyoto agreement,” Moomaw said. The loss of future carbon uptake due to the removal of forests, even the plumes chugging out of a biomass plant’s smokestacks—these did not go on the books.
The result was what many scientists call the “carbon accounting loophole.” By international agreement, if a nation or industry burns megatons of wood, thereby emitting megatons of carbon, it can be defined as a largely carbon-neutral event. “The wood biomass energy claims of carbon neutrality are incorrect and misleading,” Beverly Law, a professor of global climate-change biology at Oregon State, told me. “It can worsen climate change even if wood displaces coal.”
In 2009, the European Commission passed the Renewable Energy Directive to enforce the guidelines set up in Kyoto. It required nations to reduce emissions by twenty per cent or more by 2020. In the decade that followed, European nations were slow to establish solar or wind infrastructure. What Europe did have in abundance were coal plants. Converting the plants from burning coal to burning wood was relatively easy. The biomass-emissions loophole made it attractive. “Countries had to meet their renewable-energy targets,” Scot Quaranda, the communications director of the Dogwood Alliance, a forest-protection N.G.O. based in North Carolina, told me. “There was no way to do it without gaming the system and counting biomass as carbon neutral.” Coal plants such as Drax, Ørsted Energy’s Avedøre power station, in Denmark; and the Rodenhuize thermal power plant, in Belgium; started to transition from coal to wood pellets. (Ali Lewis, the head of media and public relations for Drax, disputed Quaranda’s description. “How can we be ‘gaming the system’ when the carbon accounting for biomass is derived from the principles set by the world’s leading climate scientists at the U.N. I.P.C.C., and we follow those rules to the letter?” Lewis asked.)
In 2017, the E.U. spent six and a half billion euros on subsidies for biomass plants. Last year, Drax got about $1.1 billion from the British government. “The governments can claim they are compliant, while former coal companies that would have been dead get rich on government subsidies and selling electricity—much of which, with proper planning, could have come from wind and solar,” Quaranda said. “The forests are destroyed, and the world burns.”
By 2019, biomass accounted for about fifty-nine per cent of all renewable-energy use in the E.U. The Dogwood Alliance estimates that sixty thousand acres of trees—trees that would have otherwise sequestered carbon—are burned each year to supply the growing pellet market. Global demand for wood pellets is expected to double by 2027, to more than thirty-six million tons. And although the entire premise of burning wood as renewable energy hinges on the assumption that trees grow back, there is no binding governmental or industrial oversight for replanting trees at all. “There’s no requirement that Drax or anyone has to replant trees, and no requirement that whatever they’re planting has to come back as natural forest,” Quaranda said.
Even if there were strict protocols for replanting trees, it takes between forty and a hundred years for a new tree to pay down the carbon debt racked up by logging and burning an old one. In 2018, when Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald Trump, declared that the U.S. would now consider burning wood to be “carbon neutral,” a group of climate scientists wrote an Op-Ed for the Times condemning the decision. “Throughout the many decades before the replacement forests can grow enough to remove the extra carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” they wrote, “the previously added gas will thaw more permafrost and melt more ice, make ocean acidification worse, accelerate global warming, speed sea-level rise, increase the incidence of extreme weather, worsen drought and water stress, and hurt crop yields—effects that will persist for centuries or longer.”
At the recent U.N. climate-change conference in Glasgow (cop26), a dominant issue, as in past conferences, was that governments and businesses are underreporting emissions. Yet there was relatively little conversation about the biomass loophole. If anything, in Glasgow, the E.U. appeared to be doubling down on biomass. “To be perfectly blunt with you, biomass will have to be part of our energy mix if we want to remove our dependency on fossil fuels,” Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s executive vice president for the European Green Deal, told reporters. Meanwhile, the Earth’s atmosphere continues to absorb enormous amounts of carbon that don’t officially exist.
Agroup tour of the Drax power plant, which I took in 2019, began in a visitor’s center with glossy floors, high ceilings, black-and-white photographs of coal mines past, and a model of a nineteenth-century turbine. It looked like a science classroom in a public school in a town with a healthy tax base. The walls were papered with positive newspaper headlines: “Drax Leads Europe in Green Power,” “Power Station Looks to an Eco-Friendly Future.” Of the fifteen or so people who joined the group tour, four were boys under the age of ten. Two brothers, aged around seven and nine, cowlicked and big-eared, accepted their hard hats and safety vests from the tour guides with bashful excitement. A tiny kid, maybe in kindergarten, adorable in his tracksuit—a mini-Jason Statham—clung to his mother’s leg.
One of the tour guides—white, tall, bald, mid-fifties, rimless glasses, Dad sense of humor—called us all to attention by holding up a small clear jar of wood pellets. “What can you all tell me about biomass?” he asked. Silence. “Very quiet group today.” The adults smiled expectantly; the children took stock of their reflections on the floor.
Finally, one of the cowlicked brothers said, “It’s natural?”
The tour guide was delighted. “That’s right!” he exclaimed. He shook the little jar as the boy looked down with shy, secret pleasure. “This is residue from the timber industry, made out of scraps and sawdust.” The tour guide had a musical Welsh accent and he swayed back and forth, as if to the sound of it. He passed the sad vial of orphan timber residue around the room and asked if anyone knew where the wood came from. “No, we don’t get it from England. No, we don’t get it from Germany. Can we do better? Perhaps, maybe? A bit better?”
“The United States,” I piped up. People laughed, because the person with the American accent had said “United States.”
“That’s right,” the tour guide said again. “We don’t have a timber industry in the U.K., so we don’t have all the waste that they have there in the United States, and also Canada. They have all these lovely trees, for making things and so on, they cut down these trees, make those things, furniture, boards, you know, and we just use the bits of the trees they are not using.”
Drax burns wood pellets from pellet mills situated mostly in the U.S. and Canada. In the South, there are four Drax-owned mills and several more owned by one of Drax’s largest suppliers, called Enviva. In Canada, there is Pinnacle Renewable Energy, which Drax bought this year. These operations cut down a lot of trees: pine and hardwood forests in the South; and spruce, pine, and red cedars in British Columbia. Some of this activity is in primary-growth forests—forests that have never before been logged. Pellets made from these trees are shipped from ports (Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is one; Prince Rupert, British Columbia, is another) to England, where they are loaded onto custom-built trains, brought to Drax, and burned to supply around six per cent of the electricity used in the U.K.
The Dogwood Alliance has extensive photographic evidence of whole trees in North Carolina and Virginia being piled up on trucks that are headed for Enviva’s pellet mills, which require some fifty-seven thousand acres of timber per year to operate. Conservation North, a community group in British Columbia working to protect primary forests, has taken aerial photographs of thousands of hectares of forests in British Columbia that the provincial government has licensed to the Drax subsidiary Pinnacle Renewable Energy. These forests were recently shorn clean of their spruce, birch, and pine trees. “Those forests went to Pinnacle and then went to the Drax power plant to be burned,” Michelle Connolly, the director of Conservation North, told me.
This evidence conflicts with Drax’s official promotional materials. According to a Drax-produced virtual tour, the wood it burns for biomass is “made from tiny pieces of sawdust” that are “made when the trunk of the tree is cut into the big pieces needed for construction and furniture.” Minutes later in the same video, you see whole trees being loaded into a debarking machine, as a narrator speaks about “sustainably sourced forest thinning and low-grade wood.”
When I first asked a Drax spokesperson, Selina Williams, about this evidence of clear-cutting, she challenged me for using the word “logging.” “Pinnacle isn’t a logging company,” Williams said repeatedly. When I restated “logging” as “tree-cutting-down,” she repeated the phrase in a derisive tone: “Tree-cutting-down? What do you mean by tree-cutting-down?” Eventually, she said, “Canada has one of the most regulated forest industries in the world and has laws requiring a specified annual cut to minimize the risk of pest, disease, and fire.”
Conservation North’s fight is less with Drax or Pinnacle than it is with the British Columbian government, which, Connolly said, “won’t acknowledge that primary forests exist and are important for wildlife habitat and as carbon sinks.” There’s another loophole at work here: under international definitions, if a government or private entity cuts down a forest but doesn’t develop the land, it has not officially engaged in deforestation. “There aren’t any laws against primary-forest degradation in B.C. and Canada,” Connolly said. Canada’s forests used to be one of the biggest carbon sinks in the world, but about ten years ago, due to a combination of logging and natural disasters such as fire and drought, they began emitting more carbon than they absorb. (According to Lewis, the Drax spokesperson, “forty-three per cent of the material used to make all of our pellets comes from sawmill residues,” and “the proportion is much higher in Canada, where our operations use around eighty per cent sawmill residues.”)
On the Drax tour, the message about making good use of the timber industry’s castoffs seemed to resonate. “It’s wonderful that they’ve come up with a use for all that leftover wood,” mini-Jason Statham’s mother said as she looked up at one of the massive cooling towers.
“It certainly is,” the tour guide said. “So, there’s ten steel balls sitting inside each of those pulverizing mills, where we will visit later, and what they do is turn those pellets into what, well, pellet powder, and the fuel drops in, it burns, the ash pops out the bottom, all happy there? Any questions, happy, mostly? All very happy?”
Later that day, I spotted the mother of the cowlicked boys quizzing them about what they had learned. “Why do they burn the wood?” she asked.
“Because no one else wants it?” one replied.
“That’s right,” she said, beaming.
The tour group boarded a transport van to drive around the Drax complex. Drax is in the middle of the English countryside, but once you enter the gates, you feel like the only thing around Drax is more Drax. There are a few brutalist-lite concrete office buildings, connected by walkways. Otherwise, the buildings are strictly industrial, housing the boilers and pulverizers and furnaces, surrounded by those two sets of six cooling towers and turbine halls, with the smokestack somewhere in the middle of it all. We passed through some open space of scrubby vegetation—about forty-seven acres—and paused in front of a giant pile of coal. “This all used to be coal in here,” the tour guide said. It was still a lot of coal.
We pulled up to a giant, open-ended metal shed, where railroad tracks came in one side and out the other. Here, trains bearing the slogan “Powering Tomorrow” carry pellets in from the English ports. Seventeen trains per day, with twenty-eight cars each, bring twenty thousand tons of pellets to this shed every single day.
Drax, like England itself, has an ambivalent relationship with coal. Working in a coal mine meant you risked being suffocated in a pit or by your own lungs for a paycheck, but it was a steady living. At its peak, in the nineteen-twenties, the British coal industry employed more than a million people. By 1990, it was fifty thousand; by 2016, just a thousand. During the 1984-85 miners’ strikes, Margaret Thatcher made trade unions her enemy, but it was also simply much cheaper for England to import coal than to mine it. As the coal industry collapsed, work in England became predominantly urban and either professionalized or service-oriented. The towns where people once did physical labor to maintain the country’s infrastructure became places to sleep and be unemployed in. The last large-scale underground coal mine in Great Britain—Kellingley, which is also in North Yorkshire, about twelve miles from Drax—closed in 2015. The Selby coalfield, also in the area, once employed three thousand five hundred people; today, Drax employs about seven hundred.
Many of the people living in and around Drax have solid jobs with the government, or with a large sixth-form school called Selby College, or at nearby York University. Wealthier residents commute to York or even London. But there are also a lot of residents who are unemployed, underemployed, doing contract work, or working in low-wage service jobs. I talked to Steven Shaw-Wright, a councilperson in Selby, on Zoom, about the economic landscape of the Selby area. He described an indoor-amusement-park chain twelve miles from Selby, called XScape, which is also home to cinemas and restaurants. It’s built on the site of a former coal mine. “XScape’s got lots of jobs, but those jobs pay ten quid an hour, as opposed to the decent money that the pit used to pay,” Shaw-Wright said.
Then, there was Drax. “Drax is a really good employer, they pay really good wages,” Shaw-Wright said. People in the Selby area are very pro-Drax, he sensed. “They do attract attention from climate-change activists from time to time, to stop the chips and the burning and the carbon. But locally, they do lots of environmental projects. They fund community groups.” Drax is “a source of income for the community,” and “that money gets spent locally, in the pubs and shops, and people are quite happy with that.” According to Shaw-Wright, of the nearly forty-two million dollars of business tax accrued in the Selby district over the last year, about twelve million came from Drax.
Among the newspaper clippings tacked to the wall of the Drax visitor’s center is “Clean Coal Project Would See 1,250 Jobs at Drax,” announcing a carbon-capture and storage project named White Rose. The article, from the Yorkshire Post, was published in 2012; White Rose never came to fruition. It was not the first time Drax promised jobs that did not appear, Shaw-Wright said. But he remains optimistic about Drax’s future as a local employer and about the region’s future in the green-energy sector. He mentioned windmills and solar projects in nearby Goole and Hull. A carbon-capture partnership has started between Drax and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries that could create more than fifty thousand jobs in the U.K. “The younger people want something to look forward to,” he said.
Carbon capture was a recurring theme of the Drax tour. The guide explained the concept of C.C.S., which stands for “carbon capture and storage.” “Before the carbon can even leave that big smokestack, Drax is intervening, and binding it with a solvent, and burying it in the ground,” he said. “It’s a matter of balancing what’s being used with what’s being replaced. Wood is a sustainable material because they’re taking it away as they’re replacing it.”
“The solvent looks like really runny honey,” a second tour guide added. She wore a Drax polo and a fluorescent safety vest. She was about thirty, with meticulous makeup and a pearlescent pink manicure.
“Oh right, I’ve heard about that program,” I said. “That’s so cool. How much carbon have they captured? I just read about it the other day. Like a thousand tons a day or something?”
She giggled into her hand and the other tour guide barked outright. “That would be nice, wouldn’t it?” she said.
The idea behind C.C.S. and similar technologies—such as beccs, which stands for “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage”—is to treat carbon emissions with an enzyme that binds to the CO2 so that it can be liquified and eventually sequestered underground. It sounds great, until you get to the part where no one has figured out how to capture and store enough carbon to make any difference. Almuth Ernsting, the co-director of Biofuelwatch, an international anti-biomass-industry N.G.O., told me, “Drax has never actually stored a single pound of carbon.” (“With government support, the first beccs unit at Drax could be operational in 2027 with a second in 2030,” a Drax spokesperson told me.)
Chevron and Shell, among other fossil-fuel companies, have spent billions on carbon-capture initiatives, as have some governments; the Obama Administration funded $2.4 billion in carbon-capture development projects. In July, around five hundred environmental organizations—including Biofuelwatch, the Dogwood Alliance, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and Waterkeeper Alliance—sent an open letter to President Biden and other government officials expressing their skepticism toward C.C.S. “CCS projects implemented to date have systematically overpromised and under-delivered on emissions reductions,” they wrote. “Despite the billions of taxpayer dollars spent by governments in both the United States and Canada on CCS over the last ten-plus years, the technology has not made a dent in CO2 emissions.”
In his speech at cop26, Biden emphasized that slowing climate change is a job-creator (for “the engineers who will design new carbon capture systems” and “the construction workers who will make them a reality,” among others). Limiting global warming, Biden said, “is a moral imperative, but it’s also an economic imperative—if we fuel greater growth, new jobs, and better opportunities for all our people.” Biden’s comments underlined the big problem, which isn’t Drax or even the biomass industry. The problem is “the economy,” which is required to produce profits and reproduce itself, and which requires huge energy inputs to do so. We are witnessing the complete breakdown of weather patterns. We are enduring floods and wildfires and watching the Earth that sustains us die. The Colorado River is about to disappear. The Gulf Stream is in jeopardy. Monsoons in South Asia displaced millions of people this summer. We do hear about all this on the news, but we hear much more about “the economy.” Even as we watch economic growth literally killing us, it is what we talk about before we talk about anything else—we are told, over and over, that we must run to it for help. The truth is that if the economy is not entirely unmade, the debates over the folly of biomass, over what counts as renewable, over whether or not a tree can grow back faster than it burns—all of it will vanish into a great silence.
In October, Drax lost its place on the S. & P. Global Clean Energy Index, as did Albioma, a biomass company in France, after analysts expressed skepticism about the true carbon neutrality of their operations. But Drax doesn’t appear to be at any risk of losing its government subsidies, and as energy prices spiked in the U.K. amid the fuel crisis this fall, Drax’s share price rose to its highest point in seven years.
The taxi-driver who took me back to my hotel in Selby loves Drax. “I drive to Drax a lot. I had the fella from the United States who sells the trees to Drax in my car,” he told me. He was in his late sixties and white. He said he used to be an engineer. “What they have come up with is so ingenious,” he said. “They burn trees, but they used to burn coal. But you can replant trees. It’s just brilliant.”
“Well, yes,” I said, “but wood also emits CO2.”
We went back and forth like this, the taxi-driver and I. I said that within fifty years, if the CO2 in the atmosphere reaches five hundred parts per million and London, Jakarta, Houston, New Orleans, Venice, Lagos, and Bangkok are all underwater and California is being deserted and India and parts of Africa are reaching a hundred and forty degrees, what are we going to do? Are we going to tell the atmosphere to hold on a minute, those wood-burning emissions don’t count, and we promise the CO2 from the trees we burned in the twenty-twenties should be cancelled out soon?
“Yeah, but they’re going to do carbon capture,” the taxi-driver said.
“I don’t think that really works,” I said.
“Sure it does,” he said. “It’s in the newspaper. You should read about it. They’re working on it right here at Drax.”