The ‘green’ row over the UK’s largest renewable power plant

This is the second of two articles examining the way wood pellets are produced and used as a green energy source. The first article can be found here.

The Drax power station near Selby, Yorkshire, is surrounded by both busy roads and small farms. A faint humming noise emanates all around the complex, while water vapour rises slowly and steadily from the cooling towers.

The scale of operations at this converted coal plant is gargantuan. It’s the UK’s largest renewable power station. Wood pellets are imported from the US on enormous ships that take up to 21 days in transit. They are then transported overland via rail, and Drax receives about 17 deliveries of wood pellets a day, operating 24 hours a day, six days a week.

Once inside, the pellets are pulverised into a powder, blown into boilers and then burnt. The steam from this process powers turbines that produce electricity.

In 2020, Drax generated 11% of the UK’s renewable power – enough for four million homes. While the UK is by far the largest consumer of wood pellets, globally, biomass is a massive industry that is growing in value and reach.

The EU is also a major market, and South Korea and Japan are increasingly interested as well. This means that the search has widened for new sources of wood, for instance from Estonia.

Yet, Drax’s green credentials have been comprehensively challenged by environmentalists and others recently. The climate think tank, Ember, calculates that the power station is now the UK’s single largest source of carbon dioxide. The firm’s share price weakened on this news breaking although it has subsequently regained ground. The stock was removed from the S&P Global Clean Energy Index in October after the index changed its methodology.

When it comes to the arcane world of climate accounting, biomass energy is classed as renewable based on the premise that trees grow back. So greenhouse gas emissions from trees are counted in the nation of land use rather than the place where they are burnt.

Yet, Mary Booth, founder of the environmental organisation Partnership for Policy Integrity, points out that “just because something is counted as zero because of an accounting convention does not mean it’s carbon neutral”.