As winter approaches, there’s nothing better than throwing another log on the fire. The UK Government are taking this sentiment one step further though, and will soon commit to subsidising coal power stations to ditch coal and switch over to burning wood instead.

Drax – the largest coal power plant in the country – plan to switch half of its boilers over to wood, and just last week the Times reported that Eggborough was considering switching over completely.

Whilst a tonne of wood might keep you warm for winter, about 30 million tonnes – six times the total UK timber harvest - will be needed if Government plans go ahead. It’s difficult to estimate exactly what this will cost us, but Drax alone received £69mn in subsidies last year and that will go up to about half a billion once it has delivered its conversion plans.

Beginning to sound a bit crazy? It gets crazier.

Subsidies for green power make sense. We need them to catalyse the transition to a low carbon economy, but they only make sense if genuine reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are delivered.

A new report published this week by the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, uses Government’s own data to show that burning whole trees to generate electricity is worse for the climate than coal. The report is based on advice from leading Princeton academic Timothy Searchinger, who was one of the first academics to identify serious problems with greenhouse gas emission reductions from biofuels used in transport.

The logic is simple – when trees are burnt in power stations, CO2 comes out of the chimney just like it does when you burn coal.  The difference is that the wood is less energy dense and is wetter than coal, so it takes a lot more energy to harvest, transport, process, and finally burn it. When these emissions are tallied up, generating power from typical conifer trees results in 49% more emissions than just burning coal.

Government has justified burning trees in power stations by claiming the chimney emissions are offset by the carbon that the forest takes in when it regrows after being harvested, but this is misleading. It can take decades, if not centuries for the trees to recapture that carbon, leaving us with more emissions in the atmosphere now, when we least need it.

What’s the solution?

Burning whole trees in power stations simply shouldn’t happen. Some parts of the industry, including Drax, recognise this but resist specifically excluding the use of whole trees from subsidies arguing that there is no need because they'll only use waste. We need genuine, independently verified assurances to prove its not happening. If this means that there will be less bioenergy available, then so be it. Let’s invest in real clean, green renewables instead.  

You can read the full report here