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« Missing the point? | Main | Grinding to a halt »

Wood insanity be the reason?

Insanity is a possibility, but more likely this is just the great law of unintended consequences - so often a feature of well-meaning politicians. Drax, a major UK energy generator is about to convert one of its major power stations to burn wood. Since wood is categorised as a renewable energy source this plan will enable them to escape the EU's strictures against fossil fuels.

Drax Group Plc will spend $1 billion to turn the U.K.’s biggest coal-fired plant into western Europe’s largest clean- energy producer. The U.K. utility plans to convert one of the facility’s six units to burn wood pellets by June, Chief Executive Officer Dorothy Thompson said in an interview. Drax at a later date plans to switch over two more units to the fuel, investments that if completed would mean the facility harvests a forest four times the size of Rhode Island each year.

For UK readers, Rhode Island is about one seventh of the size of Wales. Once again, environmentalism is leading to the wholesale destruction of the environment. This is yet another price that we have to pay for our leaders' green obsessions.

Selby-based Drax plans to spend as much as 700 million pounds ($1.1 billion) through 2017 upgrading its boilers, ordering millions of tons of biomass from around the world and building facilities to store the fuel, including four silos each bigger than London’s Royal Albert Hall, a 135-foot (41-meter) high oval concert venue with an 800-foot circumference.

That it is profitable for a company like Drax to ship tonnes of ultra-low-energy-density fuel around the world demonstrates just how far our political leaders have distorted the market. The good news, however, is that we are able to identify the culprit:

The emphasis changed earlier this year when the government confidentially requested the industry’s view on full conversion.

“We decided the government must be looking at that quite seriously if they were going to ask for people’s opinions on it,” Thompson said. As a result, Drax carried out a series of undisclosed trials to see how a unit would react to burning “exceptionally high” levels of biomass, she said.

When the government on July 25 announced incentives that rewarded full biomass conversion over co-firing, the company’s shares plunged 25 per cent, with investors still unaware of Drax’s trials. The stock recovered some of its value after the executive team outlined the new strategy on a conference call with analysts later that day. Drax closed on Sept. 19 at 504 pence, down 2.8 per cent from July 24.

The encouragement from the UK government means that it is possible to point the finger of blame at Ed Davey. So now you know.

(As an aside, it's interesting to wonder what part scientific advice has played in this decision)

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Reader Comments (57)

Mad as a meat axe. Can you imagine the 'carbon footprint' of dragging millions of trees from all around the world? And you just know what will happen with logging of forests in dodgier parts. Maybe they've gone troppo with all the global warming.

Sep 26, 2012 at 8:08 AM | Unregistered CommenterGiixxerboy

"Well-meaning" politicans may think they are well-meaning, but they are really seeking to feel good about their achievements, secure their place in history, etc. People have forgotten that those are not honourable intentions. A truly well-meaning politician seeks to do what's best for those who elected him / her, and this leads them to understand that the ideas which glitter are not necessarily gold.

Sep 26, 2012 at 8:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterSJF

You can't get the wood, you know.
Remember this picture from Jo Nova's:

Sep 26, 2012 at 8:14 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Silver

Utter insanity! Has anyone calculated the "carbon footprint" of the whole process to see what the increase in CO2 emissions will be compared to just burning coal.

I used to know an engineer who lived near Drax. He said that when Drax started co-firing one of the units with bio-mass (local grown miscanthus, I believe), the increase in emissions of real polluting chemicals and particles was so high that they had to stop. Just an anecdotal aside, but there is nothing necessarily clean about burning bio-mass.

Sep 26, 2012 at 8:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterPhillip Bratby

We need a campaigning organisation that will defend our environment. We could call it something like "Friends of the Earth" but if my memory serves me right that name has already been taken.

Why are "Greens" such quislings?

Sep 26, 2012 at 8:20 AM | Unregistered CommenterRoy

Domestic firewood prices have doubled here in Hungary in large part because of use in electrical generation.

The knock on effect has been that any easily available hard wood tree, with ill defined ownership, gets chopped down by a gang and sold off the back of a lorry.

What they need to do is remove the moisture, compress it at high pressures to increase the density, crush it into an "aggregated" form to allow easy transport around the site. It would be cheaper and easy to transport, and the calorific value would be far greater than the original raw wood.

I have even come up for a name for this super improved biomass: coal.

Sep 26, 2012 at 8:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterJiminy Cricket

Politicians can't see the wood for the trees.

Sep 26, 2012 at 8:42 AM | Unregistered CommenterDisko Troop


you missed ..bahboom

Sep 26, 2012 at 8:47 AM | Unregistered Commenterconfused

Four sevenths the size of Wales each year!
That's a lot of faggots.

Sep 26, 2012 at 8:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Reed

Selby-based Drax plans to spend as much as 700 million pounds ($1.1 billion) through 2017 upgrading its boilers, ordering millions of tons of biomass from around the world and building facilities to store the fuel, including four silos each bigger than London’s Royal Albert Hall, a 135-foot (41-meter) high oval concert venue with an 800-foot circumference.

When companies start to invest this sort of money on the back of government policy then it will be extremely difficult to end that policy without retribution. The hole that the country is in just got a little deeper.

Sep 26, 2012 at 8:52 AM | Registered CommenterLord Beaverbrook

In a rational world, this should bust the CAGW scam wide open. What happened to the 'every tree is sacred' tree-huggers of the 1980s? Not to mention that forests are good carbon sinks. And no doubt most of this 'biomass' will be shipped in from the third world to degrade their natural environments even more. And what should we expect to hear from the Big Green ngo's? Very likely crickets.

Sep 26, 2012 at 8:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterChris M

I wonder when the old charcoal makers will return to the forests? After all windmills have returned. Dark ages reloaded.

Sep 26, 2012 at 8:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Whale

Numbers from DECC’s Chief Scientist:

If we grow in Britain energy crops such as willow, miscanthus, or poplar (which have an average power of 0.5 W per square metre of land), then shove them in a 40%-efficient power station, the resulting power per unit area is 0.2 W/m2. If one eighth of Britain (500 m2 per person) were covered in these plantations, the resulting power would be 2.5 kWh/d per person.

To put this into context, his estimate for total energy use in the UK is 195 kWh/d per person and his estimate for onshore wind power is 2 W per square metre of land.

Sep 26, 2012 at 8:56 AM | Registered CommenterPhilip Richens

Davey has just appeared on "Today", slightly challenged by the resident Scot, with the whole thing degenerating into whining against Lord Lawson.

Oh my oh my oh my...

Sep 26, 2012 at 9:04 AM | Registered Commenteromnologos

And the winner is:

Sep 26, 2012 at 9:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterSteve (Paris)

As you have implied but not spelt out, the government market-skewing is the ROC scheme for biomass, see Drax statement. More from Drax here.

Sep 26, 2012 at 9:16 AM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

When short-rotation coppice was being considered as a biomass crop, it was acknowledged that an area the size of Dorset would be required to power a city the size of Manchester. This was clear in the early 90s. So many Manchesters, so few Dorsets ...

Sep 26, 2012 at 9:19 AM | Unregistered CommenterFilbert Cobb

A large furniture/chioboard factory in the north east which is a major employer in a rural area is seeing prices for its feedstock rising rapidly to the point where it may become unsustainable. That means risks to the largest employer in the area, and hence to the jobs and local economy. That's sustainability for you.

Another, (off topic) example is the move locally to promote a car club - people will be asked to subscribe to the club and have a fleet of vehicles made available to them at hourly rates so they can book them when they need and so not own a (second) car. Pubic funding is being sought for the project. No-one seems to have thought of the local car hire company that maintains a fleet of cars that people can book when they need them and so not own a (second) car, and in doing so generates employment and tax flows TO the public purse not from it.

Sep 26, 2012 at 9:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterCumbrian Lad

When I read this I had to check it wasn't April 1st.

What are these idiots in DECC on?

Sep 26, 2012 at 9:34 AM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

Cumbrian Lad -

You're forgetting LibLabCon's new (old) mission statement:

“Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State” (Benito Mussolini - brought to you by courtesy of a 100% EU-compliant elite).

Sep 26, 2012 at 9:35 AM | Unregistered CommenterBarbara

Any timber is becoming incredibly expensive in the UK and this will just push the prices of building and furnishing houses higher.
Burning biomass is a shockingly 'dirty' process in terms of resultant air quality - no sensible engineer would approve of this.

Sep 26, 2012 at 9:48 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlexander K

I very much second Lord Beaverbrook on this one. Thus, again, an unholy coming together of green and commercial interests that will be exceedingly hard, if not impossible, to reverse.

Gloomy, gloomy, gloomy.

Sep 26, 2012 at 10:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterAgouts

I have 20 acres of willow coppice that had its first harvest this year. The machinery to harvest it took about 1000 litres of fuel, my tractors consumed about another 500. It was then transported from my farm to Lockerbie (50 miles) in 24 lorries, I don't know what an articulated lorry uses but it would amount to a lot of fuel. The crop was then dried with a loss of half its weight.

I have another two harvests to look forward to before my contract is fullfilled, which means I have a wildlife sanctuary for another 5 to 6 years.

Sep 26, 2012 at 10:06 AM | Unregistered Commenterjohn Lyon

In some countries biofuel makes sence (on the margin).

In Sweden we chop 80 million cubic meters of wood every year. From that timber and and paper is produced. The inevitable rest products are substantial. Parts of that is used to run the pulp production, a (larger) part is used in heat and electricity producing, area wide, units (the combination of heat and electricity makes for a very high energy utillisation (85 %)).

At the same time we have some awkward result of heavily taxing oil and electricity and not individual's use of wood for heating. In some part of Sweden, where you are "close to the woods", you can buy fire wood quite cheaply (= not taxed). In some northern small towns (actually in the middle of nowhere) you then have the worst air quality of Sweden. Small is not always beautiful.

Sep 26, 2012 at 10:18 AM | Unregistered CommenterGösta Oscarsson

From Paul Mathews second link

To offer more options to growers to be part of the biomass market supply chain, we have made the decision to work directly with individual farmers and landowners and offer direct offtake contracts for both energy crops and straw under our Green Shoots programme.

Together with climate change gives less land and less growing time to produce less food for an increasing population. Further pressure to increase the price of raw animal feed raises the price of red meat producing a greater reliance on fruit and vegetables and fish.

Is this the 'nudging' effect that our leaders are so intent on using to change our behavior towards their aims for society?

Sep 26, 2012 at 10:26 AM | Registered CommenterLord Beaverbrook

Well, Drax has to fund his Moonraker programme somehow. I've already booked my place on Moonraker #2. Get in quick!

Sep 26, 2012 at 10:39 AM | Unregistered CommenterNick Milner

I've known about this nonsense for some time, I don't think about it because it is so stupid it hurts my head.

Unintended consequences, deforestation and....... plant and domestic appliances which already burn wood pellets etc - cheap wood and chip board is a thing of the past - all furniture made in soft wood is therefore more expensive, whichever way they do it - this is lunacy of a special kind.

Plenty of coal in the ground right next to Drax too - its like a game - the greenies think,
"wot fossil fuel do we most hate?"

useful idiot, "der dunno",
Greenpeace Gaia defender, "oh come on, in the case of Drax it is the one most plentiful and nearest to the power plant"
useful idiot, "nope"
Greenpeace dreamer, "god you really are so stupid"
useful idiot, "I work for the Department of energy and climate change!"
Greenpeace train stopper, "its coal you idiot!"
useful idiot, "Wot is coal?"
Greenpeace fascist, "its something we used to dig up out of the ground in Britain"
useful idiot, "Really?"
Greenpeace fascist, "yep, now we prefer power plant to burn trees"
useful idiot, "don't trees 'eat' CO2?"
Greenpeace fascist, "yeah but that is not the point, coal is dirty nasty stuff and it is black nasty dirty stuff and we and the girls here don't like it - so there!"

"OK!" says Ed,

"lets convert Drax to wood."

Sep 26, 2012 at 10:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

For me, all this market meddling from left and right quite blurs the political spectrum. Perhaps they'll all come together in a Conservative and Social Democratic Alliance to challenge UKIP.

Con and SoDemAll?

Sep 26, 2012 at 10:45 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Reed

I do hope, so very much, that Booker gets this into the Sunday Telegraph very soon. That'll get his trolls going. The comment from Philip Richen above should be enough to give pause.

Sep 26, 2012 at 10:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterSnotrocket

Children will not know what forests are.

Comment nicked from some greenie.

Sep 26, 2012 at 11:26 AM | Unregistered CommenterShevva

I told readers on this site some time ago that the insanity would only get worse, as those committed to it refused to reconsider. This is all on the head of an incompetent scientific community (as -- once again -- the definitive evidence of the Venus/Earth temperatures comparison, against the carbon dioxide-global-warming "greenhouse effect", has been lying right out in front of any passing competent physical scientist for 21 years now, and was only picked up by me, two years ago, because I went looking for literally unarguable empirical evidence when I saw that mass delusion among consensus scientists was making them refuse to recognize the literally overwhelming evidence against their theory).

And the insanity will still only get worse, because those who refuse to face reality must, all too soon, drive themselves to open, violent war with those who DO face reality.

Sep 26, 2012 at 11:34 AM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Dale Huffman

"Domestic firewood prices have doubled here in Hungary in large part because of use in electrical generation."

It's a very long way from Wainwright Street to Hungary Jiminy.

There is one thing I woodn't do and it's use trees to generate electicity.

Harry, I've read your stuff, it seems incredible to me that no one's picked it up and tried to kick it into touch. I have on question, how do you know which part of the Venusian atmosphere is at 1 bar?

Sep 26, 2012 at 11:48 AM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo

aha, our living spaces will become smaller, thereby making more wood available for Drax!

24 Sept: LA Times: Lee Romney: San Francisco considers allowing nation's tiniest micro-apartments
A proposal would reduce the minimum size for a residence from 290 square feet to 220. Proponents tout affordability; opponents fear congestion and 'shoe box' living.
New York City has launched a pilot project to test them out. Boston is doing it too. But here in San Francisco, where a growing number of residents are being priced out of the housing market by a revived tech economy, city leaders are considering the smallest micro-units of all.
At a minimum 150 square feet of living space — 220 when you add the bathroom, kitchen and closet — the proposed residences are being hailed as a pivotal option for singles...,0,5210788.story

Sep 26, 2012 at 11:50 AM | Unregistered Commenterpat

@ john Lyon ~ Sep 26, 2012 at 10:06 AM

I used to take quite an interest in the transport sector and a typical artic would be doing something in the region of 7-9mpg. That was a number of years ago so things may have improved somewhat. However bear in mind that most of the recent dramatic advances achieved by passenger cars are due to aerodynamic and weight savings, which can't be applied to HGV's.

Sep 26, 2012 at 12:02 PM | Unregistered Commenterdave ward

If you drive up and down the M6 at the northern end from Penrith to south of the M62 cross over there are lots of Eddie Stobart artics with huge biomass signs on them running up and down. The subsidy allows the use of this uneconomic madness which saves no CO2 at all.

Sep 26, 2012 at 1:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air

I think you're all crazy: there are not enough wood chips to go around.

Much better to burn corn, like we do with our automobiles! Better yet, let them burn cake.

Sep 26, 2012 at 1:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterParma John

An old school-friend of mine works as an ex-lumberjack in Northamptonshire tree services.

He performed some minor surgery in my parents garden recently and I asked him what happens to the trimmings. He said a lot of it has to be burned at Drax. He didn't know whether it went by road or by rail. I didn't ask how much energy they might use hauling garden clippings up to Yorkshire from 1 hour North of London.

Perhaps Virgin Trains might get a replacement for their lost happy-people transportation contract?

Sep 26, 2012 at 1:29 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Say, Chris M, if the tree-huggers keep on hugging all the way to the Drax plant...?

Sep 26, 2012 at 1:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterParma John

"Drax, a major UK energy generator is about to convert one of its major power stations to burn wood."

Or maybe Gas

PS Check out Dellingpoles DT latest

Sep 26, 2012 at 4:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamspid

If you want to reduce CO2 it is far more efficient to just bulldoze as many trees as you can into massive water-logged landfill (effectively how Coal is made) and burn shale gas or use nukes instead. This is also far cheaper than burning wood in power stations.

This is the truth of it, but truth is not popular with greenies.

Sep 26, 2012 at 5:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobL

Couldn't we cut out the middle man, and just bulldoze the greenies into massive waterlogged landfill instead?

Sep 26, 2012 at 5:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterBarbara

"The hole that the country is in just got a little deeper." --Lord Beaverbrook

It seems increasingly likely that the hole is the objective.

Sep 26, 2012 at 6:22 PM | Unregistered Commenterjorgekafkazar


I like the way your mind works ^.^

Sep 26, 2012 at 6:54 PM | Registered CommenterDung

As somebody else pointed out we have a fair amount of experience using biofuel in Sweden. One of the things we have learned is that wood pellets have a tendency to self ignite if you pile them too high. People around Drax may be in for an interesting time once they've filled those 135-foot silos to the top.
Pellets also produce carbon monoxide and consume oxygen so they shouldn't be kept in enclosed areas.

Try and google "pellets" and "självantändning", unfortunately it is mostly in Swedish.

Sep 26, 2012 at 6:57 PM | Unregistered Commentertty

I forgot to mention that we don't use it for power generation much. It is used either for pure area heating or in a combined cycle with some limited power generation, but mostly area heating. It is a low-grade fuel and not really suited to power generation.

Sep 26, 2012 at 7:04 PM | Unregistered Commentertty

This is mind-numbing. From a reliable system based on coal, gas and nuclear to what promises to be an insanely unreliable system based on part-time wind turbines and tearing down more forest than we've got, in only a few short decades. And we all pay the price via electricity prices that simply disregard our ability to pay. How hollow Her Majesty's words now ring down the years, about "electricity too cheap to meter" from those shiny new nuclear stations.

I have to agree with jorgekafkazar. Something this complicated and crazy isn't accidental.

Sep 26, 2012 at 7:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteve C

I've often thought how much firewood is wasted when hedges are flailed. I think most know what I mean when they drive down a country lane just after the flailer has done its work, there are pieces of green wood all over the road. They are usually too small to bother about collecting for the wood burner at home but would be ideal for a commercial furnace.

But country lanes are just the tip of the iceberg. Just about every fieldin the country is has its hedges flailed every few years or so and nationwide this must be equivalent to a forrest measured in Wales units.

It can't be beyond the wit of man to make a machine that will flail and collect. And unlike conventional biomass projects no extra fossil fuels will be used in the harvest as it has to be done anyway

Sep 26, 2012 at 7:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterMartin

Self-ignition whilst still in deposit is a problem with wood pellets, but apparently there are some new kinds of wood pellets who don't suffer from it. Who knows if they'll be used in this case.

Sep 26, 2012 at 9:39 PM | Registered Commenteromnologos


The MacBains’ Liberian company, Buchanan Renewables BV, clears away old, unproductive rubber trees from plantations, and turns them into wood chips that are exported as biomass to Europe. Electricity companies reduce their coal consumption and carbon emissions by burning the product.

Buchanan Renewables employs about 750 Liberians in the port city of Buchanan, but it also helps rubber farmers to plant new trees, boosting their productivity. The company has rejuvenated more than 2,000 hectares of rubber farms so far, while producing up to 500,000 tonnes of wood chips annually.

Sep 26, 2012 at 10:17 PM | Unregistered Commenterclipe

The US is littered with abandoned trash burning power plants that were going to save both money and the environment. In fact, the capital of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg) is about to go bankrupt because of all the bonds sold to fund a useless and derelict trash burner. Taxpayers just couldn't absorb the cost of the wasteful (and wasted) project.
Maybe that will happen to these silly wood burners too.

Sep 26, 2012 at 10:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterGaryP

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