UK invests £2 billion in a controversial ‘carbon negative’ power plant, sparking debate among experts about its environmental impact.
The UK government made a bold move on Tuesday by approving a £2 billion (around $2.5 billion) project aimed at establishing a “carbon negative” wood-burning power plant, a decision that has sparked a significant debate among climate specialists.
This contentious plan involves outfitting two generators at a Drax-run power station in Yorkshire, northern England, with carbon capture units. The company projects that once in operation, each unit will prevent approximately 4 million tons of carbon pollution annually from entering the atmosphere by storing the captured carbon beneath the North Sea.
Drax's power station in Yorkshire, once known as western Europe's most polluting facility, underwent a transformation in 2019, switching from coal to biomass—predominantly wood pellets sourced from North America.
The addition of carbon capture technology is set to transition the plant into a source of "bioenergy with carbon capture and storage" (BECCS). Drax claims this will render the plant carbon negative, asserting it will remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits through biomass burning. However, this technology has not been universally welcomed, with critics like Tomos Harrison, an electricity transition analyst at Ember, labeling BECCS as "unproven," "highly controversial," and financially burdensome for UK taxpayers.
The method of burning biomass itself is under scrutiny, with a 2021 study from the European Academies Science Advisory Council questioning its effectiveness in climate change mitigation and even suggesting it may exacerbate the issue.
Critics point to the lengthy timespan required for newly planted trees to reabsorb the carbon released in biomass burning, alongside concerns about the potential detrimental impact on forests due to wood sourcing.
These concerns were amplified after a BBC investigation prompted the UK energy regulator Ofgem to probe Drax's sustainability practices, particularly its wood pellet sourcing. Drax has defended its practices, asserting its adherence to sustainability requirements and emphasizing its commitment to using wood from sustainable sources.
Amid these debates, experts like Laith Whitwham of E3G argue that the focus and funding should shift to other renewable technologies. Whitwham suggests that "Public money would be better spent on increasing grid capacity and battery storage, and further expanding wind and solar generation," rather than on controversial projects like Drax's.
Ember's research indicates that Drax has been a significant recipient of government subsidies, receiving an average of around £785 million ($620 million) annually.
Their report labels BECCS as an "expensive gamble," potentially costing taxpayers up to £1.7 billion a year. Drax, however, disputes these claims, stating that Ember's report is fraught with inaccuracies and assumptions. The company contends that BECCS development at its Yorkshire station could yield substantial savings for the UK, citing figures around £15 billion ($19 billion).
Will Gardiner, CEO of Drax Group, underscores the significance of the government's approval, envisioning it as a milestone in BECCS development and highlighting Drax's potential role in large-scale carbon dioxide removal and contributing to the UK's energy security.
As the UK government endorses the project, affirming its potential to contribute significantly to the country's Net Zero by 2050 goal, the debate rages on, encapsulating the complexities and controversies surrounding modern renewable energy initiatives.
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