DECC, the Department for Energy and Climate Change, is responsible for drawing up and implementing the rules for renewable energy subsidies. And those rules have been increasingly skewed in favour of big biomass, while support for onshore wind and solar PV is being cut.
A large 100 MW biomass power station, such as that proposed by Helius Energy in Avonmouth, will attract up to £69 million in subsidies every year. Drax can look forward to around £694 million of subsidies every year – guaranteeing them great profits, given that their total biomass investment is £700 million and that they’ve already been given a public loan guarantee for £75 million and a cheap loan for £50 million from the Government’s Green Investment Bank.
DECC has been announcing biomass sustainability and greenhouse gas standards since 2010, although they haven’t actually introduced any so far. Such rules have just been delayed for the second time, this time to April 2015, but a policy announcement like this has been a great boon to energy companies: The mere fact that DECC has a ‘policy’ on sustainability has been used to stop planning authorities from refusing any biomass power stations on sustainability and climate change grounds.
Over the past few years, the proposed standards have been watered down and become little more than farcical. For example, DECC’s Chief Scientific Advisor has been working on a new ‘biomass carbon calculator’, based on peer-reviewed findings about the carbon impacts of different types of biomass. However, DECC has made it clear that his findings will be ignored until at least 2027 when it comes to assessing ‘greenhouse gas savings’. Instead, they have put forward carbon counting rules which, according to their own Impact Assessment, will allow all sources of wood to be classed as ‘low-carbon’ (‘all sources’, by implication, including even the wood from clearcut ancient swamp forests in North Carolina going to Drax).
Ultimately, without the generous subsidy rules for big biomass devised by DECC, there would be no large-scale biomass electricity in the UK and no clearcutting and degradation of forests for it.