Shadow on future of bioenergy as Drax’s own advisors deny its carbon neutrality

DRAX Board Chairman prepares to field questions at its AGM

In statements which have dire implications for the future of the forest bioenergy industry, Drax Corporation’s own Advisory Board has told it to stop calling biomass ‘carbon neutral’. This warning comes amid a rising chorus of concern about the impact of the industry from scientists, politicians and investors alongside environmental NGOs.

Chaired by former UK chief scientific adviser Professor Sir John Beddington, the Advisory Board says Drax must “move away from saying ‘carbon stocks are increasing/stable’ and stating biomass is carbon neutral”, and “reassess its criteria for determining carbon neutrality”.

Meanwhile when questioned by Toby Aykroyd of Wild Europe at Drax’s Annual General Meeting on 26th April, its Chairman Philip Cox confirmed that Drax had not been reinstated following its expulsion in 2021 from the Dow S&P Clean Energy Index – which is compiled for investors – because of its high carbon emissions from wood burning. This reason was reaffirmed following a Financial Times newsletter enquiry in August 2022.

This revelation follows determination in November last year at a UK House of Commons Audit Committee enquiry that emissions from wood burning are significantly higher per kWh even than coal which it is meant to replace, as confirmed by Drax’s own figures.

Concerns widen, alternatives beckon

Clear felling is widespread in wood supply areas

In addition to challenges on high emissions, Drax’s claim that 97% of its wood supply is sourced from residues, waste and ‘tree tops’ is a cause of increasing concern. The UK’s energy regulator, Ofgem, is now weighing in with an enquiry into the sustainability criteria operated by Drax. 

In British Columbia, a rapidly growing source for its feedstock, a BBC Panorama report in October warned that supplies for Drax were being taken from old growth forests. At the same time, local residents and NGOs in South Eastern USA testify that one of its main suppliers, Enviva, is clear-felling natural forests across many states with no replanting, and a whistleblower from Enviva itself has claimed that whole trees are habitually used.   

Small wonder that the state of North Carolina (USA) excluded the use of forest biomass for electricity generation from its Clean Energy Plan, back in 2019.

A cloud over BECCS

Subsidies for Drax’s wood burning, totalling some £1500 million in 2021 and 2022, are due to expire in 2027. Inclusion of bioenergy in wider schemes for carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is under question from a growing rollcall that now includes several of the UK government’s own former ministers as well as senior MPs from all parties.

The world’s largest wood burning plant

With the post Covid UK economy carrying its highest of debt to GDP ratio for 60 years, the UK government is assessing its options carefully on BECCS before deciding whether to risk further taxpayer and consumer subsidy in a process increasingly seen as worsening climate change as well as biodiversity loss.

Drax is the world’s the second largest producer of wood pellets. At Selby in England it runs the largest wood bioenergy burning plant in the world – consuming some 17 million trees, and emitting 13 million tonnes of CO2 per year.

Consensus is growing that alternatives are available to supply the 6% of electricity provided by Drax with greatly diminished emissions, higher cost-effectiveness, improved economic & healthcare impacts and a lower investment risk. These options, boosted by reallocating subsidies from commercial wood bioenergy and the further matched funding this can catalyse, are currently being developed in Wild Europe’s comprehensive RECCS strategy (Renewable Energy & Climate Change), by a well-known international consultancy.