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Burning green pellets is ‘filthier than using coal’

April 16, 2018

By Paul Homewood



The Mail picks up on the Channel 4 documentary about biomass, due for broadcast tonight:



The race to adopt green energy has led to the use of materials that are dirtier, costlier and require the felling of hardwood forests in America, it is claimed.

Acres of trees have been chopped down to create wood pellets that are shipped across the Atlantic to be burned in a British power station.

The idea is that power produced from what is called ‘biomass’ at the giant Drax power station, in North Yorkshire, is cleaner and greener than using coal.


Acres of trees have been chopped down to create wood pellets that are shipped across the Atlantic to be burned in a British power station

Acres of trees have been chopped down to create wood pellets that are shipped across the Atlantic to be burned in a British power station

But research by British academics suggests wood pellets create more carbon emissions than supposedly dirty coal.

On top of that, British consumers are subsidising the use of these pellets in pursuit of Government green policies.

Estimates suggest the policy adds up to £700million a year to bills. Details of the felling of one US hardwood forest in Virginia – home to a wide variety of wildlife – has been uncovered by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme.

The biomass industry and UK government argue that because wood is a renewable source of energy, and trees can be replanted to reabsorb carbon dioxide, this policy is good for the environment.

Labelling electricity produced by Drax as ‘green’ mean that this one plant produces 17 per cent of the country’s entire renewable power – enough to power four million homes – and is not obliged to report the carbon emissions it produces


But research by British academics suggests wood pellets create more carbon emissions than supposedly dirty coal

But research by British academics suggests wood pellets create more carbon emissions than supposedly dirty coal


Yet, it is claimed that the Drax plant produces millions of tonnes more greenhouse gases using wood pellets than coal.

Footage shows the US forest being chopped down and taken to a factory owned by US firm Enviva, which grinds logs into pellets. As one of Enviva’s main customers, a large proportion of these are shipped to the UK. The power station giant claims that burning pellets instead of coal reduces carbon emissions by more than 80 per cent.

However, Dispatches conducted a simple experiment at a laboratory at the University of Nottingham which found that to burn an amount of wood pellets generating the same amount of electricity as coal, it would actually produce roughly 8 per cent more carbon. 

Clean energy, big bills

Household energy bills are increasing by an average of £23 this year to reflect the rising cost of switching to green energy, says industry regulator Ofgem.

This takes the figure up to £135 on a typical household bill of £1,100 for a standard variable tariff.

Under a scheme known as the Renewables Obligation, energy companies are required to buy a certain proportion of their electricity from renewable sources, which could be a so-called biomass plant burning wood, such as Drax, or wind farms.

These energy supplies are typically more expensive than the cheapest form of power, which most often comes from gas- fired power stations.

The bill for this scheme, which is passed on to customers through bills, is rising by £700million this year to reach £5.4billion. And a so-called Contracts for Difference scheme pays low-carbon generators to develop new projects.

The programme calculated that if Drax were to report fully on its chimney stack emissions it would show a figure of 11.7 million tonnes of CO2 last year. Yet Drax claims that this is not an issue because replanting trees means that all carbon dioxide will be reabsorbed.

Professor Bill Moomaw helped lead a team that won a Nobel Peace Prize for its work on climate change at the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He said: ‘If we take the forests and burn them, the carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere instantly, in a few minutes. It takes decades to a century to replace that.’

Drax Power’s chief executive Andy Koss said: ‘I am very comfortable that all the material what we source meets regulatory standards in the UK and meets our very strict sustainability criteria.’

He explained that the Virginia forest at the centre of the investigation would be regrown.

Enviva insisted it works to ‘industry leading, strict sustainability and wood-sourcing policies and certifications’.

Meanwhile, the Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy said: ‘Between 1990 and 2016, the UK reduced its emissions by over 40 per cent.’

Dispatches: The True Cost of Green Energy is on tonight at 8pm on Channel 4.


Typically, all Drax can talk about is “regulatory standards”, which are totally meaningless. Meanwhile, BEIS continues to mouth its own mindless platitudes.

  1. April 16, 2018 6:27 pm

    gosh…. really?

  2. HotScot permalink
    April 16, 2018 6:31 pm

    So all things being equal i.e. coal and biomass emit the same amount of CO2, our politicians think it’s a great idea to chop down CO2 consuming trees, to fuel energy production, then use CO2 producing transport to sail the stuff across the Alantic, whilst coal resides under our own feet.

    Is it just me?

    • J R Cole permalink
      April 16, 2018 6:40 pm


    • richard verney permalink
      April 17, 2018 2:54 am


      Burning biomass emits far more CO2 than does burning coal.

      It is all a matter of calorific value. Biomass has a lower calorific value and hence a far greater quantity has to be burned to produce a kilo Watt hour of electricity. For example see:

      Natural gas (US marked)* 14.5 kWh/kg

      Anthracite coal 9.06 kWh/kg
      Bituminous coal 8.39 kWh/kg
      Semi anthracite 8.19 kWh/kg
      Sub-Bituminous coal 6.78 kWh/kg
      Wood (dry) 4.50 kWh/kg

      The higher the figure, the less CO2 is produced when the product is burnt to release the energy in it for the purposes of generating electricity.

      Similar data can be seen at

    • Phoenix44 permalink
      April 17, 2018 8:40 am

      It’s “renewable” because you plant the same number of trees as you cut down, so the net CO2 is supposedly zero. The actual emissions aren’t that important, as you know they are roughly equal t the number of trees you cut down. So cut down a million, plant a million, no net emissions.

      Why we can’t instead burn coal and plant additional trees is beyond me.

      • HotScot permalink
        April 17, 2018 2:48 pm


        That would then be net, net CO2 mitigation, existing trees used to soak up CO2, whilst more are planted.

        Makes altogether too much sense.

      • Frank permalink
        April 17, 2018 3:05 pm

        What ages are these trees averaging is my curiosity. Hardwood trees under 80 years of age will still be sequestering carbon, but over 80 they use it as food, but don’t store it very effectively at all. If they used hardwood trees, strictly older than 80 years, they would have little effect on atmospheric CO2. As far as taking CO2 out of the air. New trees grown in a style of coppicing (letting old hardwood stumps re-sprout numerous new trees per stump) would speed up atmospheric CO2 consumption. Coppicing is a quick way to re-establish new trees as they already have the old trees to start and feed from their roots. Old European tradition of getting quick wood. Conversely, softwood trees only use and store higher amounts of carbon for their first 15 years of life, and the stumps don’t re-sprout. If they are cutting younger trees, beside they fact that burning these pellets are more polluting than coal, they are also cutting out what can absorb that extra CO2. Not that I am overly concerned about that aspect about excessive CO2 in the atmosphere, but they are. They are being blind to a real solution… coal.

      • Russ Wood permalink
        April 19, 2018 1:10 pm

        -But as far as I’ve read, the choppers-down are NOT replanting!

  3. April 16, 2018 6:32 pm

    I notice that it’s not on the BBC.

    • April 16, 2018 6:45 pm

      Hardly surprising, since a couple of years ago the BBC’s Tom Heap looked at the policy of burning wood pellets at Drax and he thought it was a marvelous idea. He couldn’t be seen to be changing his mind (such as he has).

  4. April 16, 2018 6:43 pm

    it’s a pity that the mail doesn’t know the difference between carbon and carbon dioxide. I wonder if Channel 4 will know the difference; the BBC certainly doesn’t.

    • HotScot permalink
      April 16, 2018 7:01 pm


      You’re trying to tell me we’re not breathing in, and exhaling diamonds?

      Pull the other one mate, you must think I’m daft.

      Damn…….can’t find the sarc off switch!

      • Gerry, England permalink
        April 17, 2018 12:46 pm

        Or soot.

      • HotScot permalink
        April 17, 2018 2:49 pm

        Gerry, England

        A lot less soot in UK inner cities than there was 100 years ago.

  5. April 16, 2018 7:35 pm

    Having seen the programme, all I can conclude is that political insanity is resulting in the destruction of the planet to save the planet from climate change; and we are paying through the nose for the insanity.

  6. Harry Passfield permalink
    April 16, 2018 7:46 pm

    Just stayed the weekend in a hotel on Dartmoor. The manager is the son of a friend and he was keen to tell me that the hotel was heated with a biomass boiler. He was all praise for it’s heating ability but I guess he was most pleased that he got a subsidy from ‘the government’, he said. I had to bite my lip and not remind him that the subsidy came from the taxpayer, not the government, and when I alluded to the fact that he had the same set up as the scandal in NI it went straight over his head. But then, he did seem to run the boiler for long periods, even when the hotel was virtually empty.

    • Phoenix44 permalink
      April 17, 2018 8:42 am

      I believe you have to run it to get the subsidy? That’s what happened in NI, all sorts of buildings suddenly got heating, even when they didn’t need it.

  7. Ian Johnson. permalink
    April 16, 2018 7:52 pm

    Regulatory standards mean the Titanic had enough lifeboats.

  8. MrGrimNasty permalink
    April 16, 2018 8:02 pm

    It’s amazing how Drax & their supplier always insist that they are only burning twigs & shavings, yet it seems every time anyone else goes and looks, they find a supposedly a-typical example of clear cutting & 100% pellet process use. It’s an insult to the intelligence to pretend that the forests can regrow and absorb CO2 at the rate that they are being burnt. And a further insult to pretend that this is in anyway green or ‘sustainable’. Or that it is not inherently wasteful and increasing CO2 emissions. It’s just a political trick to reduce coal use but keep burning stuff because they can’t admit that wind/solar can’t replace coal. How long before this charade is confronted by our politicians?

    • roger permalink
      April 16, 2018 9:18 pm

      The charade was initiated, promulgated and sustained by our politicians.

    • Nigel S permalink
      April 16, 2018 10:34 pm

      The next stage is to claim it’s all low grade timber anyway and only good for clear felling. Thus ignoring the destruction of an entire eco system which is where I thought this whole thing started.

  9. Alan Davidson permalink
    April 16, 2018 8:40 pm

    This must be one of the world’s most unbelievably stupid ways of “fighting climate change”. Drax power station is located where it is precisely because it’s next door to the coal mine.

    If the forests being cut down and processed into wood pellets were located in UK, would this be approved by the government or by the local population?

  10. Jack Broughton permalink
    April 16, 2018 8:56 pm

    This stupidity has always been clear to anyone with technical knowledge of power generation. The whole justification for the madness is the replacement of the trees: a total nonsense just like trading in carbon credits is, both are purely paper exercises in self-righteousness. Norway sells oil and gas and the carbon credits: whose got it made???

  11. April 16, 2018 9:06 pm

    The math:
    Let us say the amount of CO2 produced every year by biomass Drax is “1 Drax”. The resequestraion rate of CO2 is an average 3.3% Drax/year, i.e. it taked 33 to regrow that biomass (something I have seen in rapid growth, densely replanted warm temperate coastal areas. So:

    Year 2: 1.00 in air with 0.033 taken up BUT another 1.00 added = 1.967 in air.
    Year 3: 1.976 in air with 0.066 taken up BUT 1.00 added = 2.910 in air.
    Year 3 …… you see how this goes?
    It takes 33 years before 33 logged area remove, every year, 1.00 Drax unit of produced CO2. By then an additional 17 Drax CO2 units are in the air, waiting to be reabsorbed.

    Environmentally, 33 previously mature forests are constantly in a state of recovery.

    Aside from the stupid waste of collection, processing and transport energy, there is more CO2 permanently in the air AND the area of biosphere damage is permanently reduced.

    The Green parties have no concern for “now”, only a Utopian “later”.

    • Phoenix44 permalink
      April 17, 2018 8:44 am

      You assume only one Drax of trees is planted each year, but you could plant 33 (or 34 even).

      That way you replace with growth each year the amount you burn.

      • April 17, 2018 3:01 pm

        Now you introduce reforestation in nonforested areas. I assume only the start of burning and its replacement going forward, which is the green premise.

        You could reforest Michigan and then burn coal for 100 years under your scenario.

  12. Bloke down the pub permalink
    April 16, 2018 9:08 pm

    By their reasoning, if Drax burnt coal but then planted new forests equivalent in size to what they currently cut, they could save 8% of emissions.
    By the way, if you can’t access C4 online, the programme is repeated 3.20am Thursday

  13. Andrew permalink
    April 16, 2018 9:48 pm

    I thought the c4 program was a pro ‘green’ attack on biomass. The blame was aimed at Drax instead of at the politicians their advisors who have created this mess. Not much mention of green policies inflating energy bills and certainly no mention of the possibility that carbon dioxide is harmless in every aspect etc. For me the program bottled it and the only positive is that it might create doubt in people (believers) and get them asking questions.

    • Ian permalink
      April 16, 2018 10:10 pm

      Quite. The most disappointing facet of the programme was the starting assumption that we’re all doomed (opening with photogenic but checkable scare-mongering statistics), but this method of carbon reduction isn’t the one to go for. Not impressed.

  14. A C Osborn permalink
    April 16, 2018 10:20 pm

    I don’t know about the Channel 4 progamme, but I noticed that the DM forgot to mention the EU involvement in establishing that burning Wood is “Green”.

  15. John F. Hultquist permalink
    April 17, 2018 3:01 am

    Under the first photo, there is this:
    Acres of trees have been chopped down . . .

    It has been a long time since trees have been “chopped down” in any regular harvest operation. Links below are to videos showing current technology:
    Short time</a

    Longer movie</a

    Please stop this in the name of the CO2 evil.

    • John F. Hultquist permalink
      April 17, 2018 3:03 am

      Sorry about the coding. The 2 links work.

    • Nigel S permalink
      April 17, 2018 11:48 am

      Quite a beast, the loud rock music made sense for once.

  16. richard verney permalink
    April 17, 2018 3:03 am

    Further to my comment above regarding calorific values, the higher the calorific value the less CO2 is produced when the product is burnt to produce energy, conversely, the lower its calorific value the greater the amount of CO2 is produced when the product is burnt to produce energy, even the Government is well aware of the calorific value of fuels.

    See the data set out at:

    National Statistics Digest of UK Energy Statistics (DUKES): calorific values
    Estimated average calorific values of fuels 2016.

    You need to follow the link for the MS Excel spreadsheet

    • Gerry, England permalink
      April 17, 2018 12:52 pm

      I find that when I burn some coal along with my wood that the coal lasts for hours, still glowing away and giving out heat. I only use it when I expect the fire to burn for a long time.

  17. Dr Ken Pollock permalink
    April 17, 2018 10:53 am

    The biggest problem with this programme is that they did not state clearly that biomass is only economic because it is exempted from the carbon tax that fossil fuels have to pay. Currently it stands at £23/tonne. Hence Drax switches from 100% coal to 70% wood pellets.
    It might have been good to attempt an energy balance as well, looking at all the energy going in to harvesting, pelleting and transporting the wood to Drax, compared to the energy liberated when the wood was burnt, but television shies away from numbers. They might just have found that we don’t save any CO2 at all, given the amount of energy consumed in the whole process.

    • Gerry, England permalink
      April 17, 2018 12:50 pm

      I think to stay in business, Drax had no choice under government rules but to switch fuel.

      • Dr Ken Pollock permalink
        April 17, 2018 1:01 pm

        Gerry, my criticism is of a mad policy, originating in Brussels, but pursued vigorously by our government, that penalises fossil fuel users and encourages biofuels. So we end up importing aluminium and cement, manufactured with the same amount of energy as we would have used (and with the same CO2 produced) but at a lower energy cost, because we have made such industrial energy so expensive. I agree that the managers of Drax acted very sensibly, but only because our government wants to be seen as virtuous, with regard to climate change…

  18. Dave permalink
    April 17, 2018 8:30 pm

    The test that discovered the CO2 produced did not include the CO2 produced while MAKING the pellets before shipping them anywhere. What is the total CO2 produced?

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