Drax Eyeing California as Site of New Biomass Carbon Capture Plant

Yves here. Biomass sounds like a scam and this article intimates that it may be one, particularly since the subsidies are ginormous. Readers?

And if you are in California, I’d demand a lot of disclosure. The process so far sounds awfully sketchy.

By Phoebe Cooke, Senior Reporter at DeSmogBlog, whose work has also appeared in The Independent, The Evening Standard, The Sun Online, Deutsche Welle, The Local and Prospect Magazine. Originally published at DesmogBlog

Biomass silos at Drax power station in Selby, North Yorkshire. Credit: Alan Murray-Rust(CC BY-SA 2.0)

British biomass giant Drax is lobbying the Californian government to play host to its first ever “carbon negative” power plant outside of the UK, despite concerns about the sustainability of the energy source.

Drax has long-standing plans to launch the world’s largest bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) plant in North Yorkshire, but the former coal-fired power generator now appears to have California in its sights.

BECCS is a controversial technology that captures carbon dioxide from burning organic matter and buries it underground. While advocates promote it as a “carbon negative” climate solution, experts and campaigners have arguedthat BECCS is technically unproven, and that the practice poses risks for biodiversity, land and food security.

In a submissionon Thursday to California’s Draft 2022 Scoping Plan – the state’s climate strategy – Drax argued the U.S. would make an “ideal location” to build its first BECCS project outside the UK, but would require significant political support in the form of government subsidies.

The news has been met with criticism from anti-biomass campaigners, with Gary Hughes from Biofuelwatch arguing that the plan is already favourable towards carbon capture, and that Drax was “riding roughshod” over the fears raised by environmental justice campaigners around emissions, air pollution and biodiversity impacts.

“Drax is trying to take advantage of the policy landscape to see if the plant comes to fruition,” Hughes said.

“Even though this isn’t a concrete proposal, it could prove a conceptual win for Drax,” he added. “It wants California to promote BECCS – and if it can say the ‘global climate leader’ California is on board, they think others will follow.”

‘Ideal Site’

Drax currently has wood pellet processing mills in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, which source its UK power station. The new proposal, which was put to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the state’s clean air agency, is for a single “negative emissions” BECCS facility to be developed either in California or an unspecified “Southeast U.S.” location.

Drax claims this project would remove 2 megatons (Mt) of CO2 from the atmosphere every year, create 1,000 jobs, and enable California to meet its 2030 climate targets more quickly.

California was an “ideal site” for the proposed plant, the document said, given the “significant volumes of forestry waste biomass” available to support a BECCS plant, with “ideal geology suitable for permanent geologic storage” in the state’s Central Valley.

However, the company has faced criticism over what is treated as “waste” wood.

According to its latest annual report, nearly half (3.1 million tonnes) of Drax’s wood pellets came fromsawmill and other wood industry residues, while “thinnings” and “low grade roundwood” from forests accounted for 3.8 million tonnes. Campaigners argue these should not be considered as waste, but can provide biodiversity benefits such as microhabitats for thousands of species, as well as vital carbon sinks.

‘Carbon Negative’

The climate credentials of Drax – which in 2020 was found to be the single largest emitterof carbon dioxide in the UK – and the sustainability of the wood pellets it uses to generate electricity have been increasingly contested in recent years.

The company, which supplies around 5 percent of the UK’s electricity through burning wood pellets, has an ambition to become “carbon negative” by 2030. It has pointedto the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which says sustainable bioenergy is critical to meeting global climate goals.

The energy produced by Drax is classified as renewable under UK and EU law, under the premise that it uses trees which can be replanted to capture carbon.

Drax claims its BECCS technology creates “carbon negative” electricity, since emissions are in theory buried underground, removing more emissions from the atmosphere than are created.

Caution Urged

In the document, Drax makes a pitch for subsidies for the project, stating that it “stands ready to support the government to develop the right frameworks to scale up carbon dioxide removal technologies”.

The company also lists a “case study” of the UK’s BECCS plans, which sets out the planning steps Drax is pursuing to secure governmental support.

Drax is currently trying to secure further subsidies from the UK government, with BECCS plans estimatedby energy think tank Ember to cost the energy bill payer over £31.7 billion over the plant’s 25-year lifetime. The planning application has now been acceptedfor examination by the Planning Inspectorate, with a public consultation expected to open in the coming weeks.

Tomos Harrison, from Ember, said there was still time for policymakers to turn their back on BECCS, both in the UK and the U.S.

“If it goes ahead, Drax’s proposed BECCS project in the UK could cost energy bill-payers billions, while running the real and major risk of failing to deliver any of the negative emissions it promises,” he told DeSmog.

“The role BECCS can play in reaching climate targets is now receiving increased scrutiny and scepticism from British politicians. It is essential that decision-makers in the U.S. avoid running head-long into subsidies for BECCS and instead thoroughly investigate its climate and cost implications before making a decision to support it.”

Drax did not respond to a request for comment.

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  1. Alex V

    Biomass in itself is not a scam, given basic physics.

    The scams come from how things are accounted for, both financially and environmentally.

    The first rule of sustainability is always: What are your problem boundaries?

    The scamming for such projects happens spatially and temporally.

    Unsurprisingly when you Google “drax life cycle analysis” no relevant results appear on the first page… For me that’s an immediate tell they’re scamming. If it was better, they’d show the math.

  2. anon in so cal

    Does, indeed, sound like scam; a potentially very damaging scam.

    Drax says: ““thinnings” and “low grade roundwood” from forests accounted for 3.8 million tonnes. Campaigners argue these should not be considered as waste, but can provide biodiversity benefits such as microhabitats for thousands of species, as well as vital carbon sinks.”

    From one of many opposing articles:

    “One of the most important decisions you can make to promote wildlife habitat is to keep snags and down wood in your forest.

    Snags, large down logs, and big decadent trees provide food and shelter to more than 40 percent of wildlife species in Pacific Northwest forests. This coarse woody debris provides important structures for cavity-dependent birds and small mammals, food sources for woodpeckers and other foragers, and slowly release nutrients into the ecosystem with the help of decomposers.

    Forests naturally include some trees that have succumb to diseases, pests, storm events, or old age – some disease, decay, and tree death is normal in a healthy forest. Damaged, dead, deformed, and dying trees are hotspots of biodiversity and biological legacies. Second- and third-growth forests often lack sufficient snags and down logs because these materials were removed during previous intensive forest management; or the few remaining are in advanced stages of decay.”

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Probably the actual real-world best thing you could do for your forest is to see in any surviving Indians in your area still remember the Cultural Burning woodland management practices perfected over a 10,000 year timespan by their ancestors, and if there are any and if they remember the Cultural Burning methods; work with them to apply Cultural Burning in the Cultural Way on your forest land.

      If ” your local Indians” don’t remember the knowledge anymore, then you and your forest are on your own.
      In tomorrow’s global warming regime of Deep Heat and Long Drought, how safe will snags and downed wood be in the forest of tomorrow, as against how safe it used to be yesterday?

  3. Wukchumni

    Most of the old school biomass plants in California that burned wood to create electricity have closed down in the past decade. It’s standard practice from what i’ve seen to put pulled out orchards to the torch as its the easiest way to get rid of say a 35 year old citrus orchard-in order to put a new one in, but i’d rather we also use the abundant resources of the Sierra and those 130 million dead trees which are mostly upright still.

    Once upon a time, local orchard farmers taking out trees piled them up in large heaps and struck a match, sending huge plumes of smoke into the air.

    More recently, the waste has gone to biomass power plants that crank out electricity, meet stricter air pollution requirements and provide a renewable energy component.

    But now that the whole biomass industry in California is threatened with extinction, the issue has become a hot topic in the ag industry.

    Growers are asking: If you can’t burn orchard trees that have been removed, and you’ve got no biomass plant to send them to, where does it all go?

    “They just pile up,” said Dino Giacomazzi, Kings County Farm Bureau president. “Currently, biomass plants are about the only way we have to dispose of orchard removal.”

    About 10,000 tons of Kings County orchard waste went to a facility in Mendota annually before it closed last year, according to Matt Barnes, a spokesman for Covanta, a company that owns the Mendota facility, one in Delano and three other plants in California.


  4. Mel

    What is the “ideal geology suitable for permanent geologic storage”? John McPhee’s Annals of a Former World told me that California was made of junk swept onto the North American tectonic plate by the Pacific plate. I never imagined that being airtight.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      It doesn’t have to be ultra-permanent in megayear geological terms. It only has to be tempermanent in eco-lifespan of long-term-culture years.

  5. Finger Lakes

    First thought was DRAX, the main Bond villain in Moonraker.

    Mr. Bond, you defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you.

  6. Susan the other

    The Yorkshire Drax is the UK’s biggest air polluter? That doesn’t sound so good. Drax is targeting California for the subsidies. Somehow, I’d think that bioenergy carbon capture and storage would be easy to disprove by now. For instance, if it really creates negative carbon, why isn’t it/can’t it be adapted to use on all furnaces, big and small and if it can then it is fit to make a profit and doesn’t need government subsidies. Half-baked technology seeking long-term government funding is a real problem. Vested bad design can be an obstacle, can preclude, effective design.

    1. Anthony G Stegman

      Somewhat like electric vehicles and nuclear power plants. Neither are economically viable without substantial public subsidies.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      And of course Drax plans to strip-mine the wood from somewhere to begin with. I believe a lot of the bio-diverse forests in Appalachia currently being “strip-mined” down to the bare ground for grinding up into pellets for shipment to EUrope are being bought by Drax.

      Maybe California should embrace the suck. Why wait for global warming and its megafires to kill every last Sequoia in the Sierras? Sell them all to Drax and turn them into pellets for burning now and get ahead of the game.

  7. Anthony G Stegman

    One hopes that California won’t be bamboozled by this sleazeball company’s proposal. Everything in California’s forests should remain in the forests. No pellets. No fake carbon storage. No additional scammers.

    1. Tom Stone

      Dude,dude…Warriors tickets,dinner at “Stars” or the French Laundry with a friendly seatmate who is your new best friend for the day, gift cards…
      There are many ways to show love.

  8. Tom Pfotzer

    I’d like the plan more if instead of trying to sequester CO2 in underground rock formations (pump it down, under an impervious layer, hope it stays “sequestered”), DRAX made biochar from the feedstock, and then distribute the biochar into the forest the wood came from.

    This would not,however, produce enough energy to provide power. At best, it would be able to provide quite a bit of heat.

    Here’s a U.S. high-plains company that makes a biochar furnace. Small-to-big scale, it works like a rocket stove, if you are familiar with that concept.

    Many of you have heard me wax poetic about small-scale (household and village) production processes which “fix the planet as we make a living”.

    This biochar furnace is another such process.

    Maybe Drumlin Woodchuckles or other knowledgeable commenter will fill us in on the value of biochar in the soil, and how long biochar stays in the soil before it decomposes into CO2 and returns to the atmosphere. My understanding is that it takes a few thousand years.

    So, instead of more highly-centralized, concentrated-capital rent-extraction schemes, how about some ideas that enable households to capture the benefits of automation?

    Rocket furnace can be almost entirely automatic, except for loading the furnace, and spreading the bio-char onto the forest floor. That would take about the same amount of labor required to collect the wood the furnace uses as feedstock.

    The idea of getting the deadfall off the forest floor has some appeal. If we’re not going to do controlled burns to control the understory, we need another solution. Maybe the biochar notion could be adapted to fill this role.

  9. none

    I seem to remember that Hugo Drax was the name of a James Bond villain. Yes, I just checked. He was from Moonraker. It fits.

  10. drumlin woodchuckles

    I recalled the phrase . . . ” dark satanic mills ” . . . from a once-remembered poem.

    Perhaps someone could change that to Drax satanic mills and write a satirical revision of that poem.

    1. synoia

      It is in a Hymn

      And did those feet,t in ancient time
      walk upon pastures green
      and was Jerusalem builded there?
      among those dark satanic mills…

      The hymn is about the deadigration caused d by the industrial, a revolution, which is in the heart of climate change today.

    2. caucus99percenter

      As part of an English patriotic tradition, William Blake’s poem Jerusalem, sung to an orchestral arrangement by Hubert Parry and Edward Elgar, is the piece that closes the annual “Last Night of The Proms” concert, followed only by the British national anthem.


  11. orlbucfan

    I will admit I’m pretty ignorant about biomass. That said, Drax sounds like a dystopian term, and doesn’t pass the stink test. And what’s with the ginormous subsidies? They hitting up CA taxpayers? No thanks!

  12. drumlin woodchuckles

    It sounds like exactly the sort of performative self-congratulatory scheme which liberal fascists like Newsome, Pelosi, Feinstein, etc. would eagerly support . . . after making sure to buy shares in Drax first.

  13. drumlin woodchuckles

    @ Tom Pfotzer,

    “Biochar” in the hands of Drax is like a machine gun in the hands of the Proud Boys. It will be used for Evil when it is in Evil hands.

    That said, there are/ have been/ will be lots of Draxless, Drax-free and no-Drax-involved individuals and groups working the biochar concept.

    I tried to find and bring the site to a little group and company in Missouri called Terrachar or TerraChar or however that was spelled. But I found out that domain is now up for sale to any willing buyer. So I suppose Mr. Terrachar has quit the business. Maybe the website’s ghost can still be found on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. If so, it would be worth looking at because it had much interesting material, including microphotographs of biochar samples to show how the hard charcarbon preserved all the micropore and microtube structure of the feedstock wood from which it was made. And explained how every little pore and tube could be a home for bacteria, microfungi, etc. which performed various soil-improving functions from the shelter of their little hidey-holes inside the biochar.

    The word “biochar” can still call up various random links even with the Search Obstruction/Prevention Engines of today. It is still worth trying.

    Here is a whole bunch of images of biochar. Each one has its own URL, in case you want to go url-diving.

    The home-making of biochar by the individual hobbyist is not very controllable. All one will get is hard carbon char, which is still good for sequestering hard carbon into any soil it is mixed into. Emerging professionals are working on the slower hypoxic or anoxic heating of the plant-based feedstock to get a better more bio-friendly grade of biochar which may have more uses. The gasified volatile compounds given off in the medium-level heat can either be burned for some energy or can be harvested by distillation and fractional re-condensation for use as products in their own right. The gassed-off recondensate has been named ” wood vinegar” and is being touted and sold by some businesses. Like this here . . .
    And the hard black carbon left behind by making the “wood vinegar” would be . . . biochar.

    Biochar can be mixed with other things in controlled conditions and regimens in order to make a latter-day knockoff of the Terra Preta of certain parts of Brazil. Here is a book about that. From the publisher’s bookstore site itself, which is about as NOmazon as you can get.

    Here is a company which claims to already be making biochar and off-gases which it burns for commercially relevant amounts of energy for electricity production or other uses.

    Here is a more general description of various approaches to that basic concept, called “chab” , for “combined heat and biochar”. https://nfs.unl.edu/publications/combined-heat-and-biochar

    And finally, original hippie Albert Bates of The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee has studied and advanced the biochar promise and possibility. Here is a book he and Vandana Shiva have co-written, from a reasonably NOmazon source.

    All these links taken together should offer a set of preliminary pathways into the study of what we know so far about biochar.

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