There will be a massive increase in hot air in London tomorrow as the UK Energy Summit brings together the big energy companies and their apologists (including E.ON, EDF, Scottish Power, Ofgem, WWF, National Grid, BP and Shell) to focus on “Securing a Sustainable Energy Future”.
Thankfully the resistance has been mobilised, with the Climate Justice Collective organising a Big 6 Energy Bash to challenge the privatisation and monopolisation of energy production, the fuel poverty the Big 6 perpetuate, the climate destruction they cause and the false solutions they promote as part of their greenwashing propaganda.
The energy companies are not in the least bit interested in sustainable, secure and affordable energy, they are only interested in maximising profits. Nowadays part of increasing profits and securing investment means having to appear to take social and environmental concerns seriously. For the Big 6 this means token investment in true renewable energy, such as wind, wave and solar (all at an industrial rather than community scale of course). But there is one energy source they are promoting as “renewable” and really throwing their weight behind – biomass. Biomass is easy to package as green (burning trees is carbon neutral, right?) therefore providing the perfect distraction while they continue with business as usual, burning fuel in their massive power stations and not only making profit from the sale of the energy but also raking in the “green energy” subsidies that we pay for through a premium on our existing energy bills.
For the most part, when we talk about industrial biomass we’re talking about burning virgin wood in existing or dedicated new power stations. With mega polluters like E.ON, Npower and Drax faced with having to shut down their biggest and dirtiest power stations under the EU’s Large Combustion Plant Directive, they are scrambling to find ways to continue to run these places for as long as possible and increasingly to build lots of smaller facilities not covered by this legislation. One of their “solutions” is to co-fire coal with biomass, increasing the amount of biomass up to the point where the facility becomes a dedicated biomass power station. On the surface, this looks like a moderate step in the right direction, after all coal is an extremely dirty fuel. There are many reasons why this is actually a massive retrograde step. Burning wood in an existing power station is highly inefficient, with most of the energy/heat going straight up the smoke stack. Then of course there is all the pollution that comes out of the stack. Some of the pollutants are at levels lower than coal, others are far worse. In terms of smokestack output alone, some argue that biomass is moderately better in terms of carbon emissions than coal but that doesn’t take into account all of the emissions from deforestation in order to supply the biomass, which make it just as bad, if not a great deal worse.
In the UK there are huge plans for biomass, with all of the Big 6 heavily involved (see below). Supplying even the existing proposals for biomass power generation in the UK would require 80 million tonnes of wood. Put into context, the total available domestic wood resource in the UK currently stands at less than 10 million tonnes. So where will all this extra wood come from? Much of it will come from countries where deforestation is already rampant and is increasing with demand; places like Indonesia, West Papua and the Congo. There are also alarming moves in the United States to meet increasing demand for biomass by genetically engineering trees. There are already large-scale field trials of GM Eucalyptus in the Southern States. We can be sure that biomass is a disaster for biodiversity, that it will replace biodiverse forests with monoculture plantations. Forest-dependent communities and forest ecosystems are already under massive pressure as a result of current levels of consumption; a large-scale switch from fossil fuels to biomass or biofuels would be absolutely devastating.
So let’s make sure that “securing a sustainable energy future” means secure and sustainable for everyone, that it means shifting from fossil fuels to truly green and abundant energy from the elements, not switching to false solutions like bioenergy, that it prioritises people over profits, and that it includes a concerted move to cut overall consumption.
The Big 6 and Biomass
All of the Big 6 energy companies have interests in biomass, and those interests are growing steadily, especially with the promise of massive subsidies on the horizon. Here is a brief overview of who’s involved in what.
E.ON already have a dedicated biomass power station at Steven’s Cross and have now received permission for a biomass storage facility at their Ironbridge coal-fired power station to enable them to co-fire up to 270 MW of biomass.
RWE Npower recently became the operators of the world’s largest biofuel power station when their Tilbury B facility switched from coal to dedicated Biomass… that is until the wood storage facility on the site burst into flames. This is not a massive surprise, considering that piles of wood chip and pellets are known to generate their own heat and can spontaneously combust. RWE also acquired Helius Energy Alpha and have plans for numerous biomass power stations throughout the UK.
Scottish and Southern Electric
Already run a dedicated biomass power station in Slough and plans are being pushed for further dedicated biomass power stations at Scottish ports (Dundee, Grangemouth and Rosyth) in partnership with Forth Ports. Plans for a biomass power station at Leith were dropped after a sustained local campaign.
Centrica (British Gas)
Centrica’s entry into biomass are plans for an 80 MW biomass power station on the site of their existing gas-fired power station at Roosecote, Barrow-in-Furness.
Like Centrica, Scottish Power are seeking to add biomass to existing sites. In their case, a dedicated biomass power station in the grounds of their Langanet facility in West Fife.
Keen not to be left out, EDF boast to being the “UK’s largest suppliers of biomass.” Their target market is coal-fired power stations seeking to co-fire with biomass.
Special mention to Drax Group
Although not classified as one of the “Big 6”, Drax in North Yorkshire is the biggest power station in the UK, and they are aggressively pushing for increased subsidies for biomass. The recently convened All Party Parliamentary Group on Biomass is chaired by Nigel Adams, MP for the constituency where Drax is based. Drax provide the secretariat for the group, and at their first meeting a promotional film about biomass was shown, made by… you’ve guessed it, Drax.
Drax power station already co-fires biomass, with the view to keep increasing the amount up to as much as 100%, and they have sought planning approval to build three dedicated biomass power stations. However they have said they are unable to go ahead with these plans since the level of subsidy for biomass has not yet been agreed. Hmm, a cynic may just think this is nothing more than blackmailing the government into granting the subsidies Drax want so that they can increase their profit margin.