Coal-to-Biomass Conversions

Last updated January 2016

This briefing focuses on coal-to-biomass conversions in the UK, however conversions are happening elsewhere, too.   In Gardanne, Southern France, E.On is converting their Provence 4 coal power station to biomass.  Like the power stations being converted in the UK, Provence 4 would otherwise have had to close under EU air quality regulations – in fact, the power station had burned little or no coal for some considerable time.  Residents, forest campaigners and local authorities in the region are strongly opposed to E.On’s plans, which they believe would have a devastating impact on forests in southern France.  For more information see here or contact us if you would like to contact local campaigners.

Under the guise of “renewable energy”, burning wood in power stations is a massive growth industry in the UK right now. By far and away though, the biggest push for biomass is coming from coal-fired power station operators

Drax alone will be burning around 1.5 times as much wood as the UK produces in total every year, if it completes its conversion of three power station units. So far, it has converted 2 of these units.

Most of the wood is being  imported from North America – and this is not expected to change in the near future.  The main sourcing regions at present are the southern US and British Columbia.  In both regions, highly biodiverse and carbon rich forests are being clearcut and in many cases turned into industrial tree plantations.  Increasingly, wood sourced this way is now being turned into pellets for Drax and other UK power stations.  And as European and North American wood is increasingly burned in power stations, paper companies are looking for ever more wood from the global South and countries such as Brazil

Power station operators such as Drax Plc and E.On are getting some good PR for supposedly “going green”, but the truth of course, is far from that. As we discuss below, burning biomass actually emits more CO2 from their smokestacks than burning coal does. These conversions are really about keeping old, dirty power stations alive for longer, and cashing in on government subsidies.

These power stations shouldn’t be burning coal or biomass because of the huge impacts both have on communities, the environment and the climate.

Download our briefing about coal to biomass conversions in the UK as a pdf here.

Which power stations are converting?

Where will the wood come from?

Climate Impacts

Local Impacts

What is behind the UK’s coal-to-biomass conversions

A replacement for coal – or a way of keeping old, polluting power stations running for longer?

Stop burning coal too

Increasing fuel poverty

Take action

Which power stations are converting?

So far, Drax Power Station has been partly converted to biomass. Ironbridge was fully converted but is now closed.  Two other coal power plant generators have planning permission to convert and another coal-to-biomass conversion has recently been proposed. This does not include Tilbury B, which had been converted to biomass by RWE NPower but was closed in August 2013 following a serious fire the previous year, nor does it include Rugeley Power Station whose operators also got planning permission to convert but publicly dropped those plans.

  • Drax: Drax converted its first out of six units to biomass in April 2013, although they had been co-firing large quantities of wood with coal inside the same units before then.  They have now converted a second unit and would like to convert a third, but the government’s decision to award Contracts for Difference subsidies for this third conversion is being investigated (Jan 2016) by the European Commission for potentially breaching the rules on state aid. At full capacity, each biomass unit would burn pellets made from around 5 million tonnes of wood – so just two units would burn the equivalent of the UK’s entire annual wood production.  During the 12 months up to July 2014, Drax burned pellets from around 3.1 million tonnes of wood – more than any other power station in the world. For more information, see our #AxeDrax page.
  • Ironbridge: Ironbridge, owned by E.On, was fully converted between April and October 2013, but ran at less than 15% of its capacity. It suffered a major fire in February 2014 and was permanently closed in November 2015.
  • Eggborough: Eggborough was taken over in 2014 by Czech energy company Energetický a Prumyslový Holding (EPH). A closure announcement was made in September 2015, but a few weeks later biomass company Active Energy announced that the plant could be saved by what it claimed was a ‘revolutionary’ new technology which removes salts and minerals from biomass thus allowing it to be burnt in unconverted coal plants. However, so far Active Energy have failed to produce the pellets on a commercial scale and it appears unlikely that Eggborough will remain open after March 2016.
  • Lynemouth: The UK government awarded RWE a lucrative subsidies contract (Contract for Difference) for converting this power station to biomass. The contract was investigated by the European Commission for potentially breaching rules on state aid, but in December 2015 the Commission ruled that the subsidies complied with the rules. Lynemouth will receive the CfD subsidies until at least 2027. Lynemouth has been closed since November 2015 and in January 2016 was sold to Energetický a Prumyslový Holding (EPH), the Czech company which owns Eggborough. At the time of the sale, there appeared to be some uncertainty as to whether the biomass conversion would go ahead.
  • Uskmouth Power Station. This 383MW coal-fired power station – according to former owners SSE the UK’s oldest and most inefficient – was closed by SSE in May 2014. It was then taken over by SIMEC group, who reopened it as a coal burning plant in June 2015, whilst announcing their intention to fully convert it to biomass and to build a pellet plant on the site. However, there is a lot of uncertainty about the current status of the plant. There is no indication that the new owners have obtained any investment for a biomass conversion. Previous owners SSE looked into converting it to biomass but abandoned the idea as uneconomic.

(Note: Figures calculated on the assumption that the power stations would not run non-stop but for 7,000 hours a year.)

If all those conversions (including a 50% conversion of Drax power station but excluding Ironbridge which is to be closed) go ahead, they would burn 16.5 million tonnes of pellets made from 33 million tonnes of gree wood every year. By comparison, total UK wood production is only 10 million tonnes annually.  

Where will the wood come from?

Virtually all of the wood is being and will continue to be imported. At present, most pellets imported by the UK come from British Columbia and the southern US, some from other Canadian regions, Latvia and Portugal.  British Columbia and the southern US are both regions where biodiverse and carbon-rich forests are being clearcut, increasingly for wood pellets.  In many cases, such forests are then converted into industrial tree plantations.  In the southern US, investigations have shown that some of the wood used by pellet company Enviva (who supply Drax and have agreed to supply Ironbridge) comes from ancient trees, more than 100 years old logged in swamp forests.  Pellets imported from the southern US are being made from whole treesIn British Columbia, the number of logging concessions/quotas has been increasing at the same time as demand for wood pellets for UK and other power stations has been rising.

Information obtained by Biofuelwatch through a Freedom of Information request shows that, for technical reasons, the only type of biomass that can be burned in converted coal power station units is pellets made from wood from slow-growing trees and with little bark.  Other types of biomass – such as straw, miscanthus, eucalyptus and other fast growing trees – corrode the boilers.  The same problem significantly limits the amount of forestry/sawmill residues that can be used: Sawmill offcuts, for example, are high in bark and therefore cannot be burned in such power stations.  [Note that this restriction only applies to converted Pulverised Fuel coal power stations.  All UK coal power stations are Pulverised Fuel ones but the power station which E.On is planning to convert in southern France is not.]

As a result of the massive new demand for wood from northern forests for bioenergy, industrial tree plantations are set to expand much further in countries such as Brazil and South Africa, to produce the wood for paper that would previously have come from North America or Europe. This will mean more land-grabbing, less food sovereignty and food security and, directly or indirectly, more destruction of tropical forests.

Climate Impacts

Power stations burning wood emit more carbon than ones burning coal. Companies and policy makers ignore this carbon, claiming that new trees will grow back and absorb the carbon emitted from cutting down and burning mature ones. Yet it tends to take decades – 70 years for UK conifers – before that can happen. And when forests are destroyed and turned into monoculture plantations, much of that carbon will simply stay in the atmosphere. Such a carbon spike is a disaster at a time when scientists have shown that manmade emissions and levels of atmospheric CO2 must be reduced rapidly if we want to have any hope of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

Local Impacts

Burning biomass in power stations causes similar levels of air pollution as coal burning overall. It emits less sulphur dioxide (SO2) but more very fine particulates (PM 2.5, which pose a particularly serious risk of lung and heart disease and for which there is no safe level, according to the World Health Organisation) and more harmful Volatile Organic Compounds. By far the main air quality concern, however, is that biomass conversions will allow power stations which would otherwise be shut down to operate for decades to come. Communities such as those in Newport, next to Uskmouth Power Station will thus be exposed to high levels of air pollution for much longer. Furthermore, conversion to biomass greatly increases the risk of accidental fires and explosions.

What is behind the UK’s coal-to-biomass conversions?

There are two reasons why big energy companies are investing in such conversions in the UK:

Firstly, they have been able to persuade the Government to grant generous subsidies, paid currently as Renewable Obligation Certificates and for future conversions as ‘strike prices’. Drax can expect around £660 million in subsidies a year if they convert to 50% biomass.

Secondly,the coal power stations that are being or may be converted emit more sulphur dioxide (SO2) than EU regulations permit now or than will be permitted under the EU’s Industrial Emissions Directive (which comes into force 2016).  Burning biomass is a way for companies to reduce SO2 emissions from coal power stations whilst cashing in on lucrative subsidies – without investing in expensive SO2 scrubbers.

Biomass conversion thus allows energy companies to keep their old, polluting power stations running for much longer, rather than having to shut them down or invest in highly expensive technology for reducing SO2. And by converting to biomass, they will cash in on hundreds of millions or even billions of pounds of public subsidies every year.

A replacement for coal – or a way of keeping old, polluting power stations running for longer?

Energy companies are not investing in biomass conversions because they want to burn less coal. Drax has been granted subsidies (Capacity Market Payments) for burning coal, too .  Without the conversions, several large coal power stations, including Drax, would have to be closed down soon – biomass is thus not an alternative to coal but to closing down power stations. In fact, partial biomass conversion is likely to allow some to also burn coal for much longer than they would otherwise have been able to. And Uskmouth coal power station was already shut and has now been recommissioned (still burning coal) on the grounds that there are long-term plans to convert it to biomass.  Stopping the conversions would reduce the UK’s old, inefficient, polluting and high-carbon power station capacity, and thus create real incentives to cut energy use and invest in genuine renewable energy.

Stop burning coal too

Both coal and biomass devastate communities in the Global South, degrade the health of people in the Global North, and destroy ecosystems everywhere. They both generate massive amounts of carbon emissions and, as a result, contribute towards climate changeThe impact of big biomass mirrors that of the coal industry, and painting the industry green is not the answer. Instead, we need solutions which focus on an end to both large scale coal and biomass.

Increasing fuel poverty

Energy companies in the UK have persuaded the Government to grant generous subsidies towards biomass conversions. These subsidies will be paid for through our fuel bills, as energy companies pass on the costs to the consumer. This comes at a time when, although energy companies are making record profits, communities are experiencing rising fuel poverty and difficulty paying their bills.

Take Action

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