Wednesday, February 27, 2008

drax: still the destroyer

The target for the first Camp for Climate Action was Drax, a coal-fired power station in Yorkshire that’s the UK’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

Drax responded that they weren’t all that bad, as not only were they the most efficient coal-fired power station (which is like bragging about the least murderous serial killer), but also they were green because they ‘co-fired with biomass’, ie they burn some plants in with the coal.

They reinforced these eco-credentials, proudly declaring, ‘Drax Power has already made much progress in promoting local supply partnerships for future forestry and energy crops’.

A quick bit of maths, then.

Drax said they’re aiming to produce 10% of their output from biomass by the end of next year. Drax reportedly burns 10 million tonnes of coal a year.

In this article we're told

Drax engineers estimate that it will take 1.5m tonnes of biomass a year to replace the energy that comes from 1m tonnes of coal.

This more or less tallies with figures from Drax's initial use of biomass, where it was reported that 14,100 tonnes of willow would replace 10,000 tonnes of coal.

So, ten percent of their output was 1 million tonnes of coal, and would be replaced by 1.5 million tonnes of biomass.

That willow they trialled got just under than 10 tonnes per hectare. So, to get 1.5 million tonnes you'd need 150,000 hectares. Except that you only harvest once every three or four years, so you need to treble or quadruple that number to 450,000-600,000 hectares. There's 100 hectares to the square kilometre, so that’s 4,500-6,000 square kilometres.

Put another way, to supply Drax with 10% of its fuel from willow, we'd need to plant about 2% of the entire land area of the UK. In a very real sense, there isn't enough local land to supply Drax.

Were Drax capable of burning 100% willow, we'd need 20% of the entire UK - equivalent to all our arable land - planted to supply it.

And that would just be for one power station that supplies about one-fifteenth of our electricity.

There are those who claim that newer varieties of willow are higher yielding, up to 18 tonnnes per hectare. This still means planting 1% of the UK to supply Drax with its planned biomass, or if they were to burn entirely biomass, planting 10% of the UK.

Even if they were to do their 10% willow thing, it would reduce emissions by a mere 10%. This still means it is way, way higher emitting than anything else except burning straight coal.

But surely they can keep upping the biomass until it's a large amount? Even if the land existed, the technology doesn’t. Drax conceded

The engineers think it is technically feasible to go to 20% [biomass content]. We are targeting 10% and probably between 10% and 15% there is a window that needs to be explored.

So, with the very best imaginable result, it would still be 150% of the emissions from burning gas.

All this ignores the emissions from planting, pruning and harvesting the willow, the emissions from fertilisers (nitrates give off nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas several hundred times more potent than CO2), the oven-drying of the fuel and the transportation to Drax.

And those transportation issues can kick right in.

Earlier this month the Telegraph reported that ‘Drax power station recently replaced some of its elephant grass with a shipment of olive pips from Italy.’ (The Telegraph’s Earth section is well worth bookmarking, it frequently picks up on stuff you won’t find elsewhere).

But of course just as there isn’t enough local land to grow willow, there aren’t enough olive pips to supply that 10%. The bulk of it will have to come from much further afield. The cheapest source will be palm oil, which has a climate impact 10-30 times that of burning fossils.

The move to imported biomass isn’t driven by a lack of local land, but by the sacrosanct principle of profit. That same Telegraph piece interviews a Norfolk farmer who grew 11 hectares of miscanthus for a local biomass power station. They cancelled the order without giving a reason, leaving him seriously out of pocket and with bales of useless grass on his land.

Of course we can bet that, in the same way that BP don't count the emissions from oil they’d have got in their ‘carbon free’ hydrogen power plant, Drax’s calculations won’t find them liable for the emissions from the farming and transportation of their olive pips.

They mightn't appear in their published figures, but the climate is noticing them. What is actually happening is what should count. Any energy project should have a full-project emissions total. But corporations, committed to profit above all other concerns, will deploy all low-carbon technology in as high-carbon, dodgy accounting, loophole-stretching way as possible.

If we want to see how they’ll deal with carbon legislation, look at how they presently deal with tax legislation.

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