Burning Wood for Electricity: Destructive and Unnecessary

As subsidies go, this one never made any sense. The U.K. government offered Drax Power billions of pounds in government aid to help it convert its power plants to run on wood, the fuel source of the Middles Ages. The environmental destruction wrought by Drax’s rapacious need for supplies of wood pellets has been well documented.

But now a groundbreaking new study undercuts the company’s argument-du-jour for why the U.K. needs those plants: that they are needed to supply ready, on-demand electricity. With wind and solar power so much cheaper than the so-called biomass, Drax has erroneously posited that those sources of electricity aren’t reliable enough.

That’s balderdash, the analysts at Vivid Economics and Imperial College said in their report, which was commissioned by NRDC and released last week.

And that means U.K. policymakers can end their unwarranted subsidies to Drax—£729 million pounds in 2017 alone. It’s expensive to uproot forests in the Southeast U.S., turn that wood into pellets and ship it across the Atlantic, as Drax does. So, without the government handouts, Drax’s plants wouldn’t be able to compete.

In place of burning wood pellets, the U.K. can meet its goal to eliminate coal-fired power plants and hit 2030 carbon intensity targets with an electricity mix dominated by genuine renewables, and existing natural gas and nuclear capacity—and zero generation from Drax’s wood-fueled boilers. No additional nuclear plants would need to be built beyond the already planned project at Hinkley Point. An adequate security margin could be provided with additional investment in battery storage or demand response, or peaking generators that would operate only during extreme system stress events.

The Vivid study discredited Drax’s argument that a modern electricity system powered by wind, solar, and smart resources like batteries cannot perform reliably and predictably. In addition to providing the quantity of electricity needed at all times, the system modelled in the study meets the other key tests of system reliability under even the most challenging conditions: adequate capacity in reserve; sufficient generation to maintain inertia at all times; and adequate capacity set aside to provide frequency response when needed.

And so, U.K. leaders have a decision to make. Do they want to continue to cast their lot (and the money of taxpayers) with a retrograde technology that is unnecessary today and shows no promise for the future, or do they want to put the U.K. on a genuine path to reaching its climate goals and protecting forests worldwide?

The choice seems clear. End the subsidies for wood-fueled power plants and instead invest in genuine renewables, batteries to store renewable electricity for use at times of high demand, smart appliances and other technologies to shift demand to periods of high renewable output, and interconnectors so electricity can be imported from, and exported to, neighbouring markets.

These actions won’t be easy, but they are achievable. And with the impacts of climate change worsening, embracing truly renewable sources of energy is an increasingly urgent necessity. By taking those subsidies promised to Drax and investing them in upgrades to the electricity system, the country can achieve its carbon targets and guarantee the electricity system is secure.

The U.K. can be a leader in innovation and set an ambitious policy framework for a modern electricity system for the 21st century; pretending that burning precious forest resources makes the U.K. a climate champion is a grievous error. And it’s well within the government’s power to build an electric grid that lives up to the values of the nation.

About the Authors

Sasha Stashwick

Senior Advocate, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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