Christopher Booker: Burning Billions As Britain Switches To Burning Trees
There could be no better symbol of the madness of Britain’s energy policy than what is happening at the giant Drax power station in Yorkshire, easily the largest in Britain.
Indeed, it is one of the biggest and most efficiently run coal-fired power stations in the world. Its almost 1,000ft-tall flue chimney is the highest in the country, and its 12 monster cooling towers (each taller than St Paul’s Cathedral) dominate the flat countryside of eastern Yorkshire for miles around.
Every day, Drax burns 36,000 tons of coal, brought to its vast site by 140 coal trains every week — and it supplies seven per cent of all the electricity used in Britain. That’s enough to light up a good many of our major cities.
But as a result of a change in Government policy, triggered by EU rules, Drax is about to undergo a major change that would have astonished those who built it in the Seventies and Eighties right next to Selby coalfield, which was then highly productive but has since closed.
As from next month, Drax will embark on a £700 million switch away from burning coal for which it was designed, in order to convert its six colossal boilers to burn millions of tons a year of wood chips instead.
Most of these chips will come from trees felled in forests covering a staggering 4,600 square miles in the USA, from where they will be shipped 3,000 miles across the Atlantic to Britain.
The reason for this hugely costly decision is that Drax has become a key component in the so-called ‘green revolution’ which is now at the heart of the Government’s energy policy.
Because it burns so much coal, Drax is the biggest single emitter in Britain of carbon dioxide (CO2), the gas supposedly responsible for global warming.
The theory is that, by gradually switching to wood — or ‘biomass’ as it is officially known — Drax will eventually save millions of tons of CO2 from going every year into the atmosphere, thereby helping to prevent climate change and save the planet.
Unlike coal, which is now demonised as a filthy, planet-threatening pollutant, biomass is considered ‘sustainable’, because it supposedly only returns back to the atmosphere the amount of CO2 it drew out of the air while the original tree it came from was growing.
The truth remains, though, that coal is still by far the cheapest means of creating electricity. But the Government is so committed to meeting its own and the EU’s targets for reducing Britain’s ‘carbon emissions’ that it is now going flat out to tackle the problem on two fronts — both of which forced the changes at Drax.
First, the Government wants to use a carbon tax to make burning fossil fuels such as coal so expensive that, before too long, it will become prohibitive for power companies to use them.
A new carbon tax will be introduced in three weeks’ time, and applied to every ton of carbon dioxide produced during electricity production. The tax will start at a comparatively low level, but rise steeply every year so that, within 20 years, the cost of generating electricity from coal will have doubled and it will no longer be economical.
Second, the Government is determined to boost all those ‘carbon neutral’ — but currently much more expensive — means of making electricity, such as wind farms, nuclear power and burning biomass. It hopes to achieve this by offering a host of subsidies, paid for by every household and business through electricity bills.
What forced Drax to embark on the switch from coal to ‘biomass’ was ministers’ decision last year to give any coal-fired power station which switched to ‘biomass’ the same, near-100 per cent ‘renewable subsidy’ that it already gives to the owners of onshore wind farms.
When the experts at Drax did their sums, they could see how, if they stayed with coal, they would gradually be priced out of business by a carbon tax which will eventually make their electricity become twice as expensive.
In terms of hard-headed realism, the Government was giving them little choice.
But it is hard to overstate the lunacy of this Drax deal. To start with, some of those environmentalists who are normally most fanatically in favour of ‘renewable’ power are among those most strongly opposed to the burning of wood as a means of producing electricity.
Campaigning groups, such as Friends of the Earth, scorn the idea that wood chips are ‘carbon neutral’ or that felling millions of acres of American forests, to turn trees into chips and then transporting those chips thousands of miles to Yorkshire, will end up making any significant net reduction in ‘carbon’ emissions.
Their criticism chimes with the view of Sir David King, formerly the Government’s chief scientific adviser, who this week told Radio 4’s Today programme that when the full ‘life cycle’ of these wood chips is factored in, he doubted there would be any real saving in carbon dioxide emissions.
Drax disagrees with this, although what King had in mind was all the additional emissions arising from the laborious processes required between the growing of those millions of trees in America and the moment they go up in smoke.
The trees must first be felled, then turned into wood chips in two dedicated plants that Drax is building in America. The chips have to be transported in huge ships thousands of miles across the ocean to Yorkshire ports, then ferried in huge railway trucks to the power station.
Even then, before being pulverised into powder ready for use, the wood chips must be stored in giant purpose-built domes, where they need to be humidified in order to prevent spontaneous combustion — to which wood is 1,000 times more prone than coal.
This has already given rise to disastrous fires in other power plants that have converted to biomass, such as one which recently caused millions of pounds’ worth of damage to Tilbury power station in London.
As Drax admits, all this means that to generate nearly the same amount of power from wood as it does from coal will cost between two and three times as much, meaning that its fuel costs will double or treble — so that the only thing to make this possible will be that massive subsidy, which will eventually be worth over £1 billion a year.
This is hardly good news for us electricity users. We have already seen bills go up by over £1 billion a year because we are being forced to subsidise the use of wind farms. In the years to come, with these vast subsidies going to Drax, they will soar ever higher.
Yet while consumers are being hammered, government ministers are delighted by Drax’s decision to convert to wood chips. This is because it will result in a significant contribution towards meeting an EU-imposed target, which commits Britain to producing nearly a third of our electricity from ‘renewables’ within seven years.
At the moment, we produce only a fraction of that figure, way behind almost every other country in the EU.
Despite the huge subsidies that have been spent on wind farms, their contribution is negligible. On one windless day this week, for example, the combined output of the UK’s 4,300 wind turbines was just one thousandth — a mere 29 megawatts — of the electricity we need.
But when Drax has completed its conversion to biomass, it will be capable on its own of generating 3,500 megawatts, reliably and continuously, and contributing more than a quarter of our entire EU target for the use of renewable energy.
Yet the very fact that the Government is so desperate for this switch away from CO2-emitting fossil fuels brings us face to face with another devastating and much more immediate consequence of its energy policy.
This month sees the closure of several of our remaining major coal-fired power stations. Plants such as Kingsnorth in Kent, Didcot A in Oxfordshire and Cockenzie in Scotland (capable of generating nearly 6,000 megawatts a year — a seventh of our average needs) will stop production as a result of an EU anti-pollution directive. This means that, to keep Britain’s lights lit, we’ll soon be more dependent than ever on expensive gas-fired power stations.
The trouble is that our gas supplies are becoming ever more precarious. Only this week we were told that Britain has just two weeks’ worth of gas left in storage — the lowest amount ever.
So quickly have our once-abundant supplies of gas from the North Sea dwindled that we are increasingly dependent on expensive imports from countries such as Qatar and Algeria and, to a lesser extent, Russia — supplies on which we cannot necessarily rely at a time when world demand for gas is rising fast.
The tragedy is that, listening to our politicians such as Ed Davey, the Lib Dem Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, it is only too obvious that they haven’t the faintest idea of what they are talking about
Given this fact, it is hardly surprising that Alistair Buchanan, the retiring head of our energy regulator Ofgem, recently warned that our electricity supplies are now running so low and close to ‘danger point’ that we may face major power cuts. Some of us have been warning about this for years, having watched the reckless hi-jacking of our energy policy by the environmentalists’ hostility to fossil fuels.
Crucially, what many people forget is that if we do have major power cuts, this will not be like the ‘three-day weeks’ Britain had to endure in the early Seventies.
Back then, the country managed to get by, as people lived and worked by candlelight or huddled over coal fires. But, today, 40 years on, we live in a world almost wholly dependent on constant supplies of electricity.
Computers power everything from our offices and factories, to cash machines, to the tills and freezers in our supermarkets, to the traffic lights and signalling systems which keep our roads and railways running.
It is all very well for Government ministers to be obsessed with wind farms and other ‘renewable’ energy sources, but the fact is that the wind is often not blowing — so we need the constantly available back-up that will soon only now be available from gas-fired power stations.
And the great irony on top of all this is that gas itself will be subject to that rapidly escalating new carbon tax because, like coal, it is a fossil fuel — although, admittedly, it produces less carbon dioxide when burned.
The result of this dog’s dinner of an energy policy is that, on the one hand we can look forward to ever-soaring energy bills, while on the other hand we will have crippling power cuts.
The tragedy is that, listening to our politicians such as Ed Davey, the Lib Dem Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, it is only too obvious that they haven’t the faintest idea of what they are talking about.
They live in such a la-la land of green make-believe that they no longer connect with reality — and seem unable to comprehend the national energy crisis now heading our way with the speed of a bullet train.