Funding for ‘Sustainable Biomass’ a Drop in the Ocean Compared with Drax Subsidies, Campaigners Say

New government funding for domestic biomass projects “pales in significance” to the subsidies received by the controversial biomass company Drax, whose North Yorkshire power plant is the UK’s single biggest source of emissions, campaigners have said.

Under the “biomass feedstocks innovation programme”, start-ups experimenting with algae, seaweed, hemp and whiskey by-products can now bid for a share of £26 million to create pilot projects, it was announced on Monday.

These innovations could create low-carbon energy to power UK homes and businesses, avoid imports and form a “key component in the UK’s commitment to tackle climate change”, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said in a press release.

However, campaigners fear small-scale biomass development is unlikely to disrupt the dominant model employed by Drax, which currently supplies around six percent of the UK’s electricity through burning wood pellets transported thousands of miles from the Southeastern United States.

Almuth Ernsting, co-director at campaign group Biofuelwatch, said: “The money that the government is giving to small start-up companies and research institutes to demonstrate new approaches to bioenergy – many of them still potentially harmful to the environment – pales in significance compared to the £832 million in subsidies Drax received for burning imported wood pellets just last year.”

‘Not Viable’

Each of the 25 projects listed had previously received up to £200,000 to design the projects, and are now able to bid for up to £4 million in funding through the programme.

The list features initiatives using wastewater from breweries and dairy industries to create algae, farming seaweed off the North Yorkshire coast, and developing high-yield energy crop miscanthus.

According to Ernsting, funding to develop bioenergy from algae has already been widespread in the public and private sector, and had not yet resulted in any commercial-scale bioenergy production. Ernsting also said funding for energy crops such as miscanthus had generally been unsuccessful in the UK.

Short-rotation coppicing and miscanthus are “not currently economically viable alternatives to forest wood for energy”, she said, adding that it was “highly unlikely that the amounts offered to such projects by the UK government could result in any significant breakthroughs for such technologies”. 

Carbon Capture

The energy currently produced at Drax is classified as “renewable” under UK and EU law, because trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow.

However, critics of biomass argue that it cannot be renewable, since forests take decades to regrow and recapture carbon dioxide. Experts say that using wood by-products from forestry is ineffective in mitigating climate change and “may even increase the risk of dangerous climate change”.

Drax is planning to create a fully operational bioenergy, carbon capture with storage (BECCS) plant by 2027, to generate “carbon negative” energy through storing greenhouse gas emissions underground. 

The plant is “subject to the right investment framework from the government”, Drax has said, and could capture and store up to eight million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. A report by Ember recently found Drax’s proposed biomass energy and carbon capture and storage plant would require £31.7 billion in government subsidy.

Tomos Harrison, electricity transition analyst at Ember, cautiously welcomed the funding for new innovative projects, but expressed concern that biomass created from similar initiatives would not fulfill demand for BECCS. 

“If the UK is to go ahead with BECCS then it must address the huge climate risks associated with the current international biomass supply chains to the UK, and if the biomass programme represents a step towards this then that is a positive thing,” he said.

“We are still some way off having even a small established domestic supply of ‘sustainable’ biomass and so some way off being able to deploy small-scale BECCS to deliver negative emissions, never mind being able to supply a BECCS project on the scale proposed by Drax.” 

“Ultimately if the UK is to use BECCS in the future it needs to be built from the ground up using thorough, independent and science-led research and oversight. If the biomass programme fits into this then that is a positive step, but it also highlights the need for real caution when considering further subsidies for Drax.”

Carbon Neutral?

Drax has long claimed its biomass is sustainable, using wood that would otherwise be burned or left to rot. The company did not respond to a request for comment for this article, but this week said deploying BECCS technology would “create and protect tens of thousands of jobs across the North, kickstart new green industries, and make the UK a global leader in negative emissions technologies”.

A BEIS spokesperson said the biomass feedstock programme exists independently of Drax, and making direct comparisons between the two was “wrong and misleading”.

“Drax is an electricity generator, but biomass production and use spans many sectors of the economy – such as heat, transport and industry – and is therefore key to helping the UK reduce carbon emissions and drive down costs for consumers,” they said.

“This £26 million government investment will support innovators across the UK in the production of sustainable UK biomass feedstocks, boosting jobs and investment, and helping to ensure we have the homegrown clean energy supply we need as we move away from global fossil fuels.”

Harrison, however, argued that Drax’s dominance threatened the overall impact of the investment, since demand for biomass through BECCS would likely continue to rely on wood pellets. Drax recently announced plans to double their pellet production to 8 million tonnes a year, which would make it the world’s biggest pellet producer.

The programme raised further questions over the government’s belief in the “carbon neutrality” of the energy produced by Drax, Harrison added.

“I think it’s fair to question why, if wood from the Southeastern United States is carbon neutral, do we need to be developing new domestic biomass feedstocks? 

“This seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that current standards aren’t up to scratch. My overall impression is that there is growing concern in or around the government about burning wood from the Southeastern United States, but this doesn’t match up with the continued subsidies to Drax.”

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