Burning Wood Pellets Does Not Generate Carbon Neutral Electricity

Even a U.K. minister thinks burning them for power makes no sense.

Drax at night
Drax at Night.

Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

The climate impact of burning wood pellets for power is highly contentious. While some say it's carbon neutral, environmentalists rightfully point out it's not. Now, there's a shift in the conversation that suggests the chips are down for wood pellets.

Burning pellets is considered to be carbon neutral

United Kingdom-based Drax Group, the world’s largest biomass-burning power generator, converted coal-fired generating plants to burn wood pellets, mostly imported from the southern U.S. states. The company has also been buying up pellet factories in British Columbia, Canada, and shipping them halfway around the world through the Panama Canal and then to Yorkshire. Because they are not fossil fuels, burning pellets has generally been considered carbon neutral.

According to Drax, the carbon dioxide (CO2) was removed from the air as the trees grew, more CO2 would be removed as the trees were replanted, the pellets were made from twigs and slash, and no trees were cut specifically for pellets. Also, Bloomberg reports that "its claim to zero emissions is based on United Nations reporting rules, which state that the CO2 impact of biomass is accounted for in the country where the trees are felled, not in the energy sector."

At least, that's the story from Drax and the British government—and they are sticking to it, from Yorkshire to British Columbia.

Trees at Burns Lake
That doesn't look like sawdust and twigs.

Stand Earth

Environmentalists don't agree

But for many environmentalists, this never made any sense. We have a carbon budget that we have to keep under to keep the average global heating to under 1.5 degrees Celsius, and burning pellets burps the CO2 that had been stored in trees for decades into the atmosphere in seconds. The atmosphere can't tell the difference between the CO2 that comes from trees or coal. Also, as StandEarth has documented, the pellet mills are not just using "residuals" but are using logs from whole trees. 

The British government has been conveniently ignoring the CO2 emitted by Drax's pellets, which makes it look like they have significantly reduced their CO2 emissions. But there appears to be a rift in their solidarity.

Kwasi Kwarteng

“There’s no point getting it from Louisiana—that isn’t sustainable … transporting these wood pellets halfway across the world—that doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”

There's a change in the narrative ...

Kwasi Kwarteng, the U.K.'s business and energy secretary, told a group of backbench members of Parliament that burning pellets "doesn't make any sense." Apparently, his department "had discussed biomass with industry but “we haven’t actually questioned some of the premises” of the sustainability of pellets."

According to the Financial Times:

“There’s no point getting [wood pellets] from Louisiana . . . that isn’t sustainable,” said Kwarteng. Shipping pellets from Louisiana — one of Drax’s sourcing regions in the US — has “a huge cost financially and environmentally . . . [it] doesn’t make any sense to me at all.” He continued with more doubts, quoted in the Guardian, but is not quite ready to pull the plug: “I can well see a point where we just draw the line and say: This isn’t working, this doesn’t help carbon emission reduction, that’s it – we should end it. All I’m saying is that we haven’t quite reached that point yet.”

This is after Drax got subsidies of 2.5 billion pounds sterling ($3.25 billion) to burn pellets instead of coal when Kwarteng was energy minister. Meanwhile, The Lifescape Project, together with other environmental groups, has filed a complaint charging Drax with greenwashing, which has been recognized by the National Contact Point (NCP) for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OEDC).

Elsie Blackshaw-Crosby, the managing lawyer at The Lifescape Project, said:

"Drax continues to mislead the public and investors, pocketing billions in publicly funded renewable energy subsidies while claiming to positively impact the environment. The UK NCP’s acknowledgment that our complaint warrants further investigation is a step in the right direction. We hope that this decision will lead to the withdrawal of misleading statements and a broader awareness amongst policymakers that burning wood, while claiming environmental credit, is simply wrong."

Canadian journalist Adria Vasil pointed out in Corporate Knights that "a study led by Princeton University, published in the journal Science, called out a 'serious' error in the climate accounting rules widely applied to biomass energy since the Kyoto Protocol." The study stated: “This accounting erroneously treats all bioenergy as carbon neutral regardless of the source of the biomass."

Apparently, burning wood and calling it carbon neutral doesn't make much sense to anyone. But when the minister in charge of the British Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy is having second thoughts about it, perhaps change is afoot.