£450m in green subsidies to burn wood pellets at Drax

£450m in green subsidies to burn wood pellets at Drax

A leading British think tank, Chatham House, has today warned that the UK is wasting hundreds of millions of pounds on burning American wood pellets in biomass generators – and that the practice causes more pollution than the coal it replaced.

The UK imported 7.5 million tonnes of wood pellets last year, mostly from across the Atlantic, and most were burned in the Drax power plant.

Britain is the EU’s largest importer of wood pellets and Drax is Britain’s largest power plant. It has moved from burning coal to wood pellets over the last five years and has, as a result of this, been awarded millions of pounds in taxpayer cash from the government

In 2015 alone, the plant received more than £450 million in government subsidies through renewable obligation certificates (ROCs).

But Chatham House’s report claims that burning wood pellets is worse for the environment than burning coal and that the reporting on Drax’s emissions is flawed because it doesn’t take actually burning the pellets into account.

Reporting is carried out like this because rules set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for biomass mean that emissions are recorded in land use, rather than the energy sector.

The report’s author, Duncan Brack, said: “It’s not a good use of money. For any biomass facility that is burning wood for energy, unless they are only burning stuff like saw-mill residues or post-consumer waste, their activities will be increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere for decades or centuries. We shouldn’t be subsidising that.”

Revelations of wasted subsidies at Drax follow calls from the Civitas think tank to end the subsidising of green power to make UK power the cheapest in Europe. “The UK needs to rip up its existing energy policy and replace it with a new policy that delivers low and stable energy prices for all users,” said author Glyn Gaskarth.


  1. Malcolm Maciver

    Unfortunately, although it was blatantly obvious, when the government at the (15-20 years ago) that this was the case, they were so obsessed with demonising coal, and doing away with it as an energy source, they pushed ahead and forced energy suppliers to dash for biomass. Just about every uk coal fired plant started to prepare for burning biomass. Some of these plants are now shut down. However, the question has to be asked, why did the powers that be push so hard, at that time, to promote biomass. Who said that it was carbon neutral ?
    Now that the remaining fossil fired plants are largely committed to biomass, their future is based on a business case based on promises of subsidies. Surely if these subsidies are now removed, the business case will fall apart, and these generaters will stop operating.
    Based on this, if, as the Civitas report recommends, subsidies for “Green Energy” are stopped, where will all this cheap energy come from?
    It is time that common sense was reapplied to the industry and a philosophy based on reality and practicality is adopted.

  2. Sounds like a backhander to government officials from the biomass suppliers…..

  3. There are problems with biomass yes, however the understanding in this article is wrong. When the wood source (im assuming trees) grow they take in carbon, when this wood is burnt the carbon is released. Now potentially this could be more CO2 per MJoule produced however, the carbon released from the wood pellet is the exact amount used when the tree grew (carbon cannot appear from nowhere) this is a carbon neutral cycle aslong as the tree cut down for the wood pellets is replaced (which often happens). Compared to fossil fuels, which are releasing carbon that has accrued over hundreds of millions of years, this is where the imbalance is introduced to the environment.

  4. Chris Cotton

    Coal needs to play a part in any future energy policy for the UK. On both an economic and security basis. There is now plenty of technology around the world to make coal environmentally safe these days, compared to some of generating the risks linked with other generation methods. The risks include, safety, continuity of supply and long term economic.

  5. Nigel Milner

    Daniel, that is true to the point of cutting the tree down, then the carbon footprint starts to grow, if the wood was purely for pellets then there is the energy used to produce them, then we have the transport costs, even if the wood for the pellets came from a wood processing factory e.g. furniture then there are still transporting to a pellet plant and then on the the stations carbon emissions.

  6. Lynette Chipp

    Daniel, are you saying that a newly planted sapling can immediately take in the equivalent amount of carbon as the fully grown tree that has been been cut down? Unless this is the case, I would think there would be something like a 30 year lag in carbon take up by that tree. Multiply this one tree by the numbers involved to produce these pellets and that is one hell of a drop in carbon take up, for around 30 years, making this much less than carbon neutral.

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