A bad bet on biomass? Critics respond to Drax announcement

Cooling towers at the Drax power plant in North Yorkshire.

UK energy utility Drax has unveiled plans to build “the world’s largest carbon capture facility”, with the goal of removing more CO2 from the atmosphere than it produces, and thereby securing carbon-negative status. But campaign groups continue to insist that the maths behind biomass doesn’t add up.

The firm proposes to build two bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) units at its North Yorkshire power plant site, with a £2 billion investment. In combination the units will capture over 8 million tonnes of CO2 per year, according to the plans. Work could begin on the facility as early as 2024.

In comments cited by The Yorkshire Press, Drax CEO Will Gardiner, said: ““Drax aims to invest billions of pounds and create thousands of jobs developing BECCS in the UK, provided that the UK Government has in place policies to support the feasibility and delivery of negative emissions technologies.”

He suggested BECCS at Drax had the unique dual appeal of both removing CO2 from the atmosphere in quantity while also generating reliable renewable energy – “no other technology can do both”.

The CO2 captured by the units would be stored in a facility under the southern North Sea, in a separate project.

BECCS might seem to have the edge on other techniques in the “natural CO2 removal” toolbox, in that it pulls emissions out of the atmosphere permanently as opposed to storing them somewhere else in the biosphere, where they might have a chance to escape in the future. But the logic of cultivating forests only to periodically destroy them – and their associated carbon-sequestering potential – has been openly questioned by campaigners and expert groups. The Natural Resources Defence Council released the results of an investigation in October 2021 purporting to quantify all the emissions involved in BECCS for the first time, which concluded that the maths doesn’t add up.

Commenting on the latest Drax announcement, NRDC senior scientist Sami Yassa said:
“The biomass industry claims that bioenergy on its own is carbon neutral, and that BECCS is carbon negative. However, the math associated with the leading approach to BECCS doesn’t add up. BECCS technology will not capture the emissions that result from cutting down trees, processing them into wood pellets, and shipping the pellets across oceans to power stations before being burned. BECCS, coupled with the biomass supply chain that fuels power stations like Drax, isn’t even close to carbon neutral, let alone carbon negative.”

Elly Pepper, Senior Advocate for Cut Carbon Not Forests and NRDC also commented:

“Drax’s biomass supply chain is so highly emissive, that with or without CCS, it makes climate change worse. Any UK Government climate plan that relies on BECCS at Drax is extremely high-risk. When you’re in a hole, you stop digging – and the Government must stop ploughing money into dirty biomass subsidies. Instead, these funds should be redirected to wind and solar energy, which is not only low-cost and low-risk, but actually helps fight the climate crisis.”