Last updated December 2014
>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.
So far, two power stations have been converted to biomass:
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 are now in the process of converting a second unit and are committed to converting a third (and may even convert a fourth). At full capacity, each 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.
Ironbridge, owned by E.On, was fully converted between April and October 2013, although the power station has been running at less than 15% of its capacity since then. But even at such a low capacity, Ironbridge has been burning pellets made from 1.1 million tonnes of wood a year – more than any other UK plant except for Drax.
Two other coal power station operators are considering whether to convert (fully or partially) to biomass and both have got planning consent for doing so:
- Lynemouth Power Station, owned by RWE Npower;
- Eggborough Power Station, recently taken over by a Czech energy company called Energetický a Prumyslový Holding (EPH);
GDF Suez dropped plans for converting their Rugeley coal power station in November 2013, even though they had obtained planning permission for such a conversion. And RWE Npower closed their already converted Tilbury B power station for good in August 2013, following a serious fire the previous year.
If Ironbridge stays open, Drax converts three power station units and Eggborough and Lynemouth power stations are converted, those would , together, burn nearly four times as much wood as the UK produces in total every year.
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.
Read our coal-biomass conversions briefing below or download it as a pdf here
So far, two coal power stations have been converted to biomass (one fully, one partly) and two others have planning permission to convert. This does not include Tilbury B, which had been converted to biomass by RWE NPower but was closed in August 2013, nor does it include Rugeley Power Station whose operators also got planning permission to convert but publicly dropped those plans.
- Drax: Drax has so far burned more (imported) wood than any other UK power station and they are in the process of converting half their power station to biomass, which will require pellets from up to 14.89 million tonnes of green wood a year. So far they have already converted one unit to biomass and they are in the process of converting a second. 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.
- Ironbridge (E.On): Both of Ironbridge’s units were converted to biomass between April and October 2013, although the power station has been running at less than 15% of its capacity since then. Even at such a low capacity, Ironbridge has been burning pellets made from 1.1 million tonnes of wood a year. At full capacity, the power station would require pellets made from up to 7.88 million tonnes of green wood a year. Ironbridge is currently scheduled for closure in 2015, however E.On could put forward a planning application for continuing to run it long-term.
- Eggborough: The operator has permission to convert the power station to 100% biomass, although at the time permission was granted, the plan was to convert 75% of the capacity to biomass and to continue burning coal for the remaining 25%. Such a 75% conversion would require pellets made from 11.82 million tonnes a year. The power station has recently been taken over by a Czech energy company called EPH. EPH have not so far announced whether they intend to proceed with the conversion to biomass.
- Lynemouth Power station (bought by RWE Npower in late 2012): The previous owners obtained planning consent to convert to 100% biomass. A full conversion would require pellets from up to 3.31 million tonnes of green wood. RWE has been guaranteed long-term subsidies (i.e. a Contract for Difference) for this conversion but they have not yet announced whether they intend to go ahead with the conversion.
(Note: Figures calculated on the assumption that the power stations would not run non-stop but for 7,000 hours a year.)
Altogether, those four power stations would need around 19 million tonnes of pellets made from around 38 million tonnes of green wood. By comparison, total UK wood production is only 10 million tonnes annually. That is equivalent to the total global wood pellet production in 2012 (though pellet production is increasing rapidly, particularly in the southern US and Canada).
Virtually all of the wood is being and will continue to be imported. At present, most imported pellets come from British Columbia and the southern US, some from other Canadian regions, Latvia, Portugal, South Africa and New Zealand. 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 trees. In 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.
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.
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 around Ironbridge 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.
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 £694 million in subsidies a year if they convert to 50% biomass and all four conversions together would attract around £1.2 billion a year in renewable electricity subsidies.
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 from 2016. Ironbridge will, for this reason, have to close by the end of 2015 unless E.On obtain planning consent for converting the power station to biomass long-term. Drax would not meet the post-2015 sulphur dioxide standards without burning a very large amount of biomass. Eggborough and Lynemouth Power Stations will not meet the stricter new SO2 standards without either burning a lot of biomass or investing in expensive technology to reduce SO2 instead.
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 billions of pounds of public subsidies every year.
Energy companies are not investing in biomass conversions because they want to burn less coal. Drax has applied for subsidies (Capacity Market Payments) for long-term burning of coal, too . Without the conversions, several large coal power stations, inclouding 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. 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.
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 change. The 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.
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.