A new parliamentary inquiry will examine exaggerated claims about the role that bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) can play in the UK’s climate plan. This investigation couldn’t be more timely, as the UK government appears to be doubling down on unproven technology despite growing controversy over the environmental impacts of large-scale biomass burning for energy. Adding to serious scientific concerns about the impacts of BECCS on public health, water and wildlife, new research indicates that the UK’s current approach to BECCS will not deliver the promised climate benefits and, therefore, perverse way, will worsen climate change. Groundbreaking findings suggest that this approach should be viewed as extremely risky for people and the planet.
What is BECCS?
The basic premise of BECCS is that adding carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to a bioelectric power plant will create a ‘carbon negative’ power plant (that is, resulting in net removal). CO2 of the atmosphere). ‘Carbon negative’ electricity generation would help offset emissions from hard-to-decarbonize sectors and deliver on the government‘s commitment to reduce net economy-wide emissions to zero by mid-century .
The claim that BECCS is inherently carbon negative is based on the misconception that bioenergy itself is “carbon neutral”. Scientists are clear that this simplistic picture of bioenergy and BECCS is wrong. In particular, bioenergy generated from forest biomass without carbon capture is rarely carbon neutral.
What the new analysis says about BECCS
The process of burning wood to generate electricity on a large scale begins long before the chimney. To produce fuel, trees must be felled, transported, the wood dried, transformed into pellets and the pellets transported. Only then can it be burnt in a power plant. In addition, because old trees store more carbon than young shoots, harvesting wood results in ‘lost sequestration’, the storage of carbon that would have occurred over time in the uncut forest but never materialized, even taking into account the regrowth of the new forest. None of these shows can be captured with CSC.
Now, a new NRDC analysis disaggregates and quantifies all sources of life cycle emissions in a BECCS scenario representative of the most common supply chain for biomass electricity in the UK: wood pellets from of pine plantations in the Southeastern United States. The results show that a large part of the CO life cycle2 emissions occur off-site – far from the biomass power plant – and are therefore elusive by adding CCS to the chimney. These off-site, non-captive emissions correspond to approximately 60% of the plant’s stack emissions. Far from being carbon negative, the analysis indicates that using BECCS in a power plant like Drax, while leveraging the biomass supply chains that today dominate Drax’s fuel supplies, is responsible for about 80% more carbon than a coal-fired power plant per megawatt hour. (MWh), even after taking into account subsequent forest regrowth and on-site carbon capture at the power plant.
Adding CCS to a power plant requires additional energy to run – and in the end, no CCS technology captures all CO2 at the fireplace. The analysis also takes these emissions into account.
And there’s little reason to believe the UK’s supply chain is about to change. Drax is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to lock down its import supply of biomass, making the company not only the largest wood-fired power plant in the world, but also a leading pellet manufacturer with interests in the expanding markets for its pellets.
To date, the environmental record of biomass imports from Drax and the UK has been catastrophic. About 80% of the more than 7 million metric tonnes of wood pellets that Drax burns each year come from North America, with more than two-thirds from the southern United States. Of its North American pellet imports, more than half are made from whole standing trees harvested directly from the forests. Much like fossil fuels, when this type of biomass is burnt to generate electricity, massive amounts of CO2 enter the atmosphere, exacerbating the climate crisis.
Additionally, much of the wood burned for electricity in the UK is cut and shipped from environmentally sensitive forests abroad, destroying habitat and endangering wildlife. And unlike solar and wind power, burning wood on a large scale for electricity emits dangerous air pollution that causes a host of health problems. Wood pellet factories also release dangerous air pollution, sometimes at levels that violate factory permits and US law and are overwhelmingly cited in low-income communities and communities of color. Drax has been cited on several occasions for serious damage to the air quality at its pellet plants in the United States, most recently in February.
UK subsidizes biomass industry
Nonetheless, UK taxpayers continue to provide more than £ 1 billion a year in grants to Drax and other large biomass power plants, which generate nearly a third of what the government classifies as renewable energy. And despite the evidence, the UK government continues to stick its head in the sand. Its policy of maintaining billions in subsidies for large bioelectric power plants until at least 2027 seems explicitly motivated by the desire that they remain available long enough that during the period 2030-2050 CCS can be added. , ostensibly making power plants a source of ‘negative’ emissions. ‘ Indeed, there is little light between the biomass industry’s agenda and that of UK officials, even as Drax presses the government to approve major new grants for BECCS.
Climate think tank Ember estimates that BECCS to Drax will require £ 31.7 billion in new grants. Such large government subsidies should secure significant climate benefits. Yet the UK government’s big bet on BECCS looks alarming before its understanding of the potential risks.
What should be the next step?
The UK government should immediately end billions in subsidies for large biomass power plants and reinvest the savings in wind, solar and other real climate solutions. The UK government must also avoid approving large new grants for BECCS to Drax.