BECCS is a ‘bad bet’, says NGO report

Burning biomass and capturing the CO2 released will make climate change ‘worse, not better’, says US-based NGO the National Resources Defense Council, though Drax says the report is ‘incorrect and ill-informed’.

Drax's reliance on biomass has long been a source of controversy. Photograph: Drax Group

Drax plans to fit a carbon capture and storage system to its vast power station in North Yorkshire by 2030, which it considers would make the plant carbon negative. Burying carbon already taken out of the atmosphere by trees – otherwise known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is also a key element of the decarbonisation plans put forward to the Committee on Climate Change. Alongside reafforestation efforts, it would play a large part in offsetting emissions that would still occur after 2050.

The report attempts to separate and quantify all the emissions associated with BECCS, on the assumption that it would be powered by wood pellets harvested from the south-eastern US.

While it is possible that other forms of biomass would result in lower emissions, the group said that its research demonstrated that Drax’s approach to BECCS “isn’t even close to carbon neutral, let alone carbon negative”.

The study estimates that more than half of emissions would occur through the supply chain, and thus cannot be captured by the plant.

Even after accounting for the regrowth of forests, the process would be about 80% as carbon intensive as Drax was when it only burned coal, reckons NRDC.

“The bottom line is that policymakers around the world should not bet on BECCS. Any program to subsidize BECCS at Drax or elsewhere using supply chains similar to the one modelled here will be ineffective in drawing down emissions, risk significant harm to nature, and divert public resources that would be better invested elsewhere. Instead, policies and public dollars should be invested in proven options, such as energy efficiency, non-emitting renewables such as wind and solar, and protecting existing forests and growing more of them,” states the report.

“The UK government should immediately end billions in subsidies for large biomass power plants and reinvest the savings in wind, solar and other real climate solutions. The UK government must also avoid approving large new subsidies for BECCS at Drax,” said NRDC senior advocate Sasha Stashwick.

It is not the first time that the firm’s plans have been attacked by environmentalists. In the summer, carbon think tank Ember said that the system would cost about £31bn in subsidies over 25 years, dismissing BECSS as “an accounting trick”.

READ MORE: BECCS, DACCS and blue carbon: Everything you need to know about negative emissions technologies

But Drax was swift to repudiate NRDC’s, a spokesperson stating that the report, “relies on a long list of false assumptions, is incorrect and ill-informed, and is not aligned with latest climate science or policies on bioenergy”.

He added that BECCS also has the support of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which in a recent report said it “offers the prospect of energy supply with large-scale net negative emissions which plays an important role in many low-stabilization scenarios”. However, the expert group also warned that the technology comes with “challenges and risks”, including uncertainties about its performance and the availability of biomass at sufficient scale to feed it.

Drax argues that its supply chain emissions are 109kg of CO2 per megawatt-hour (five times lower than the NRDC’s estimate of 558kgCO2e/MWh), helping to deliver a carbon savings of 85% compared to coal.

The dispute will no doubt be considered by the Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee. A call for evidence to inform its inquiry into negative emission technologies, namely BECCS and direct air capture, remains open until 28 October.