Christopher Booker: Eco Madness

Posted: March 9, 2013 by tallbloke in Carbon cycle, climate, Energy, flames, Robber Barons

Eco Madness

Christopher Booker 09 March 2013

“Sir David King told Radio 4’s Today programme that when the full ‘life cycle’ of the wood chips is factored in, he doubted there would be any real saving in carbon dioxide emissions.”

“Alistair Buchanan, the retiring head of our energy regulator Ofgem, recently warned that our electricity supplies are now running so low and close to ‘danger point’ that we may face major power cuts.”

“The tragedy is that, listening to our politicians such as Ed Davey, the Lib Dem Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, it is only too obvious that they haven’t the faintest idea of what they are talking about.”

There could be no better symbol of the madness of Britain’s energy policy than what is happening at the giant Drax power station in Yorkshire, easily the largest in Britain. Indeed, it is one of the biggest and most efficiently run coal-fired power stations in the world. Its almost 1,000ft-tall flue chimney is the highest in the country, and its 12 monster cooling towers (each taller than St Paul’s Cathedral) dominate the flat countryside of eastern Yorkshire for miles around.

Every day, Drax burns 36,000 tons of coal, brought to its vast site by 140 coal trains every week — and it supplies seven per cent of all the electricity used in Britain. That’s enough to light up a good many of our major cities.

But as a result of a change in Government policy, triggered by EU rules, Drax is about to undergo a major change that would have astonished those who built it in the Seventies and Eighties right next to Selby coalfield, which was then highly productive but has since closed.

As from next month, Drax will embark on a £700 million switch away from burning coal for which it was designed, in order to convert its six colossal boilers to burn millions of tons a year of wood chips instead.

Most of these chips will come from trees felled in forests covering a staggering 4,600 square miles in the USA, from where they will be shipped 3,000 miles across the Atlantic to Britain.

The reason for this hugely costly decision is that Drax has become a key component in the so-called ‘green revolution’ which is now at the heart of the Government’s energy policy. Because it burns so much coal, Drax is the biggest single emitter in Britain of carbon dioxide (CO2), the gas supposedly responsible for global warming.

The theory is that, by gradually switching to wood — or ‘biomass’ as it is officially known — Drax will eventually save millions of tons of CO2 from going every year into the atmosphere, thereby helping to prevent climate change and save the planet.

Unlike coal, which is now demonised as a filthy, planet-threatening pollutant, biomass is considered ‘sustainable’, because it supposedly only returns back to the atmosphere the amount of CO2 it drew out of the air while the original tree it came from was growing.

The truth remains, though, that coal is still by far the cheapest means of creating electricity. But the Government is so committed to meeting its own and the EU’s targets for reducing Britain’s ‘carbon emissions’ that it is now going flat out to tackle the problem on two fronts — both of which forced the changes at Drax.

First, the Government wants to use a carbon tax to make burning fossil fuels such as coal so expensive that, before too long, it will become prohibitive for power companies to use them. A new carbon tax will be introduced in three weeks’ time, and applied to every ton of carbon dioxide produced during electricity production. The tax will start at a comparatively low level, but rise steeply every year so that, within 20 years, the cost of generating electricity from coal will have doubled and it will no longer be economical.

Second, the Government is determined to boost all those ‘carbon neutral’ — but currently much more expensive — means of making electricity, such as wind farms, nuclear power and burning biomass. It hopes to achieve this by offering a host of subsidies, paid for by every household and business through electricity bills.

What forced Drax to embark on the switch from coal to ‘biomass’ was ministers’ decision last year to give any coal-fired power station which switched to ‘biomass’ the same, near-100 per cent ‘renewable subsidy’ that it already gives to the owners of onshore wind farms.

When the experts at Drax did their sums, they could see how, if they stayed with coal, they would gradually be priced out of business by a carbon tax which will eventually make their electricity become twice as expensive. In terms of hard-headed realism, the Government was giving them little choice.

But it is hard to overstate the lunacy of this Drax deal. To start with, some of those environmentalists who are normally most fanatically in favour of ‘renewable’ power are among those most strongly opposed to the burning of wood as a means of producing electricity.

Campaigning groups, such as Friends of the Earth, scorn the idea that wood chips are ‘carbon neutral’ or that felling millions of acres of American forests, to turn trees into chips and then transporting those chips thousands of miles to Yorkshire, will end up making any significant net reduction in ‘carbon’ emissions.

Their criticism chimes with the view of Sir David King, formerly the Government’s chief scientific adviser, who this week told Radio 4’s Today programme that when the full ‘life cycle’ of these wood chips is factored in, he doubted there would be any real saving in carbon dioxide emissions.

Drax disagrees with this, although what King had in mind was all the additional emissions arising from the laborious processes required between the growing of those millions of trees in America and the moment they go up in smoke.

The trees must first be felled, then turned into wood chips in two dedicated plants that Drax is building in America. The chips have to be transported in huge ships thousands of miles across the ocean to Yorkshire ports, then ferried in huge railway trucks to the power station.

Even then, before being pulverised into powder ready for use, the wood chips must be stored in giant purpose-built domes, where they need to be humidified in order to prevent spontaneous combustion — to which wood is 1,000 times more prone than coal.

This has already given rise to disastrous fires in other power plants that have converted to biomass, such as one which recently caused millions of pounds’ worth of damage to Tilbury power station in London.

As Drax admits, all this means that to generate nearly the same amount of power from wood as it does from coal will cost between two and three times as much, meaning that its fuel costs will double or treble — so that the only thing to make this possible will be that massive subsidy, which will eventually be worth over £1 billion a year.

This is hardly good news for us electricity users. We have already seen bills go up by over £1 billion a year because we are being forced to subsidise the use of wind farms. In the years to come, with these vast subsidies going to Drax, they will soar ever higher.

Yet while consumers are being hammered, government ministers are delighted by Drax’s decision to convert to wood chips. This is because it will result in a significant contribution towards meeting an EU-imposed target, which commits Britain to producing nearly a third of our electricity from ‘renewables’ within seven years. At the moment, we produce only a fraction of that figure, way behind almost every other country in the EU.

Despite the huge subsidies that have been spent on wind farms, their contribution is negligible. On one windless day this week, for example, the combined output of the UK’s 4,300 wind turbines was just one thousandth — a mere 29 megawatts — of the electricity we need.

But when Drax has completed its conversion to biomass, it will be capable on its own of generating 3,500 megawatts, reliably and continuously, and contributing more than a quarter of our entire EU target for the use of renewable energy.

Yet the very fact that the Government is so desperate for this switch away from CO2-emitting fossil fuels brings us face to face with another devastating and much more immediate consequence of its energy policy.

This month sees the closure of several of our remaining major coal-fired power stations. Plants such as Kingsnorth in Kent, Didcot A in Oxfordshire and Cockenzie in Scotland (capable of generating nearly 6,000 megawatts a year — a seventh of our average needs) will stop production as a result of an EU anti-pollution directive. This means that, to keep Britain’s lights lit, we’ll soon be more dependent than ever on expensive gas-fired power stations.

The trouble is that our gas supplies are becoming ever more precarious. Only this week we were told that Britain has just two weeks’ worth of gas left in storage — the lowest amount ever.

So quickly have our once-abundant supplies of gas from the North Sea dwindled that we are increasingly dependent on expensive imports from countries such as Qatar and Algeria and, to a lesser extent, Russia — supplies on which we cannot necessarily rely at a time when world demand for gas is rising fast.

Given this fact, it is hardly surprising that Alistair Buchanan, the retiring head of our energy regulator Ofgem, recently warned that our electricity supplies are now running so low and close to ‘danger point’ that we may face major power cuts. Some of us have been warning about this for years, having watched the reckless hi-jacking of our energy policy by the environmentalists’ hostility to fossil fuels.

Crucially, what many people forget is that if we do have major power cuts, this will not be like the ‘three-day weeks’ Britain had to endure in the early Seventies. Back then, the country managed to get by, as people lived and worked by candlelight or huddled over coal fires. But, today, 40 years on, we live in a world almost wholly dependent on constant supplies of electricity.

Computers power everything from our offices and factories, to cash machines, to the tills and freezers in our supermarkets, to the traffic lights and signalling systems which keep our roads and railways running.

It is all very well for Government ministers to be obsessed with wind farms and other ‘renewable’ energy sources, but the fact is that the wind is often not blowing — so we need the constantly available back-up that will soon only now be available from gas-fired power stations.

And the great irony on top of all this is that gas itself will be subject to that rapidly escalating new carbon tax because, like coal, it is a fossil fuel — although, admittedly, it produces less carbon dioxide when burned. The result of this dog’s dinner of an energy policy is that, on the one hand we can look forward to ever-soaring energy bills, while on the other hand we will have crippling power cuts.

The tragedy is that, listening to our politicians such as Ed Davey, the Lib Dem Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, it is only too obvious that they haven’t the faintest idea of what they are talking about. They live in such a la-la land of green make-believe that they no longer connect with reality — and seem unable to comprehend the national energy crisis now heading our way with the speed of a bullet train.

The fact that Drax, our largest and most efficient power station, is having to go through these ridiculous contortions to stay in business is a perfect symbol of the catastrophic mess our politicians of all parties have got us into — all in the name of trying to save the planet by cutting down our emissions of carbon dioxide further and faster than any other country in the world.

Germany, which already has five times as many wind turbines as Britain, is now desperately building 20 new coal-fired stations in the hope of keeping its lights on. The first, opened last September, is already generating 2,200 megawatts; nearly as much as the average output of all of Britain’s wind farms combined.

China, already the world’s largest CO2 emitter, is planning to build 363 more coal-fired power stations, without any heed of the vast amount of emissions they’ll produce. India is ready to build 455 new coal-fired power stations to fuel an economy growing so fast that it could soon overtake our own. If these countries deigned to notice what we are up to in Britain, where this week we lost yet another of our handful of remaining coal mines, they might find it difficult to stifle a disbelieving smile.

But the sad truth is that we ourselves should be neither laughing nor crying. We should be rising up to protest, in real anger, at those politicians whose collective flight from reality is fast dragging us towards as damaging a crisis as this country has ever faced.

  1. tallbloke says:

    What are they on? This Earth or Fullers?

    A new deal by Russia’s Gazprom energy giant to market Israeli liquefied natural gas puts Moscow firmly in the burgeoning and contentious east Mediterranean energy sector, and shows that it’s again emerging as a player in the strategic region. The deal, signed Feb. 26, is a direct consequence of a ground-breaking visit to Israel, the United States’ most valuable strategic ally in the region, by Russian President Vladimir Putin last June. With U.S. interest in the Middle East seemingly diminishing, in part because of vast shale oil and natural gas deposits that lessen dependence on Persian Gulf oil, Putin clearly has ambitions of filling the vacuum. –UPI, 9 March 2013

    The entire eastern Mediterranean is swimming in huge untapped oil and gas reserves. That discovery is having enormous political, geopolitical as well as economic consequences. It well may have potential military consequences too. Tulane University oil expert David Hynes told an audience in Athens recently that Greece could potentially solve its entire public debt crisis through development of its new-found gas and oil. He conservatively estimates that exploitation of the reserves already discovered could bring the country more than €302 billion over 25 years. –F. William Engdahl, Global Research, 3 March 2012

  2. colliemum says:

    I can’t help wondering if those politicians who have pushed this and keep pushing this eco-madness haven’t received some nice, stuffed, little brown envelopes from the usual suspects, a.k.a greenpeas etc …

  3. tallbloke says:

    I doubt it Viv. It’s the policitians who’ve been funding greenpeas et al to lobby them to do what they couldn’t do legitimately without ‘grass roots’ pressure. The 280 billion dollar question is:


  4. oldbrew says:

    20 new coal-fired stations for Germany. No problem with EU regs for them it seems.

    One reason why ‘our gas supplies are becoming ever more precarious’ is the lack of storage capacity in the UK. It was never a problem when the North Sea did the job for us.

  5. Richard111 says:

    Yes, why? Germany can build 20 coal powered generating stations with what appears to be EU blessing while UK must shut down 4 stations with vieled threats of severe penalties if there is any failure to follow orders.
    The only option left for me is to vote UKIP unless there are other ideas out there.

  6. clivebest says:

    If I remember correctly David King was responsible for “scientific advice” backing the climate change act 2008. DRAX provides about twice the energy produced by all UK wind power summed together. Furthermore it is reliable, whereas wind fluctuates between 3GW and 0.4GW indeterminately. As a consequence we need an equal amount of GAS to dispatch power when wind fails. This leads to extra fuel costs (like driving in a stop-go traffic jam) and emits more carbon as a result.

    This has nothing to do with climate change – It is sheer lunacy .

  7. Doug Proctor says:

    The economics of DRAX wood chips seems in part sensitive to the price of Bunker C used to transport the wood chips across the ocean, and the price of oil and gasoline to create it, gather it and provide it to ports. The wood chips themselves are probably waste product that needs to be removed from pulp and sawmills, which initiallly have a negative value, but as demand reduces the “problem”, the chips become an asset. It would be interesting to see what the economic forecasts for DRAX are based on.

    (In the 1980’s in Western Canada, sulphur produced as a by-product of deep, sour gas, alternated between an asset and a liability, going from +$20/tonne to $-5/tonne, i.e. we had to pay people to take it away. This is how this works. For wood chips, there is a cardboard market, amongst others, but my bet is that some wood chips are not usable; these are the ones being used for biomass energy.)

    I can see a future where the economics of wood chips becomes unsustainable under even the current generous subsidies. DRAX then comes back to the trough OR there is another costly conversion.

    So much of this is obvious nonsense that I fall back on a painfully-learnt truth: if something seems “off”, you are missing some of the story.

    Why is this happening? It is not just money but power.

    We have seen how the British aristocracy is still connected to both decision-making power, the helms of industry and land holdings that benefit from State-subsidized windpower. I’d check directorships, investment-houses for powerful Brits – and that would be not just for DRAX itself, but for those who own the wood chip sources, the ships crossing the Atlantic and the huge train transport systems that will be needed.

    Speaking of trains: the article says there are 36,000 tons of coal burned each day, requiring 140 coal trains per week. Without doing any Google search, the energy density of wood chips has got to be 1/5th of coal, so right there we have 180,000 tons of wood chips each day, requiring (physical density of wood 1/2? coal), 140 X 5 X 2 or 980 trainloads/week!

    Why? Check the ownership of the trains. Plus the off-loading of the ports.

    The other thing to check: if there really is a replacement need of 980 trainloads per week, can DRAX handle the capacity? Can the port facility handle the workload? Is this a phantom? Can DRAX handle the 7% of British electricity demand as a wood burning facility?

    If I knew how to put the above in bold-face, itallicized and red, I would: there is something funny about the numbers that are implicit in the story. Perhaps what we are seeing is a way to shut-down 1/3 of DRAX output, with the requirement that a 2/3 DRAX windpower system (X5, due to output efficiencies) be built.

    As I said, there is some story we are not seeing.

  8. Das says:

    Let me get this straight – the treehuggers would prefer to cut down live trees and burn them , rather than dig up dead trees and burn them, to generate electricity?

  9. gofer says:

    It would seem to require 140 trainloads per day instead of per week. This is beyond any logical reason and verges on sheer insanity. Wood chips normally go into paper and the only waste is sawdust but that is used to make plywoods so I don’t see where these huge amounts of chips come from and how they could constantly supply in such amounts. They must be paying a LOT of money for these chips in order for them to be transported such long distances.

  10. […] Eco Madness  Eco loons say it is better to cut down live trees to burn than dig up dead trees to burn. Data Show That Nature Adds More CO2 to Atmosphere Than Man If The CO2 AGW Theory Is So Indisputable Why Do Its Proponents Stoop To Distortions, Lies and ad hominem attacks against so called skeptics instead of logic to counter arguments against their beliefs?  […]

  11. tallbloke says:

    Doug Proctor, excellent comment, I’m going to forward that to Benny Peiser in the hope it might land on an MP’s desk.

    Maybe Drax is taking the wood chips that would have been made into pulp for newspapers – if they could sell them. 😉

  12. Coal replaced by wood chips? Do not the loonies, who are responsible for the subsidies, realise that coal was formed from trees and vegetation in swamps? The build up of matter at the bottom of the swamp causes pressure to squeese out moisture to eventually become peat. Pressure and temperature as the deposit becomes deeper turns it to brown coal and lignite. Many of the lignite and brown coal mines have display areas of recovered roots and trees stumps and sometimes whole trees. Still more pressure and temperature particularly from crustal movements turns the brown coal to black coal. I have been down a black coal mine and seen a whole carbonised tree trunk (about 20m long) clearly outlined in the coal matrix. The identifying features of coal rank are a) inherent moisture b) oxygen content.. Peat has an inherent moisture over 70%, Brown coal 40-70%, lignites in various grades from 15-40%, black coal in various grades 1.5 to 14%.
    Wood chips have high inherent moisture and high oxygen content (as CO2 in distillation which results in no recoverable energy). Even with a lot of money spent on drying,air preheating and economisers the efficiency of the previously coal fired units will be lower.
    Most likely it is a ploy to use gas firing. I suggest the resulting fuel mix will finish up at around 75% natural gas (from shale and coal deposits) and 25% rdf (refuse derived fuel)

  13. […] Eco Madness Christopher Booker 09 March 2013 “Sir David King told Radio 4′s Today programme that when the full ‘life cycle’ of the wood chips is factored in, he doubted there would be any real saving in carbon dioxide emissions.” “Alistair Buchanan, the retiring head of our energy regulator Ofgem, r … …read more   […]

  14. TinyCO2 says:

    It’s what happens when governments are panicked into acting. We are at the worst point of ‘OMG we must do something, anything! It might not work but we have to try.’ Which is fine for a movie when you can write in the ending where the insane attempt to save the planet actually works, but not so good for the real world.

    Haven’t these people ever heard about putting money aside for when you find something you really want?

  15. Clive Best says:

    I am on holiday in Gambia and met a Dutch guy who works in a coal fired power station near Rotterdam. They tried burning wood in one plant and it actually caught fire because of the water content. Of course it is daft to use a fuel with 5 times less energy content than coal and costs more. The government have stopped subsidies for wood. The Dutch are now opening 2 new coal power stations this year – one near Rotterdam operating at 1 GW. For political correctness they are called mixed coal/biofuel but of course they are pure coal. The coal is imported very cheaply from US and S. Africa.

    Only in the UK have we completely lost our marbles. Cheap reliable energy = productive industry = economic growth. Out politicians have lost all reason.

  16. James Griffin says:

    There has never been a greater disconnect between politicians and reality in the history of this country. We are in this situation because the media had allowed the green movement and its scientists to ride roughshod over democracy and free speech. The Americans are planning a green bandwagon of their own and have installed Vice President John Kerry as the man to lead it.
    He is very wealthy , has five mansions, drives a UV, owns his own plane and has a 76ft yacht.
    Let us hope the first power cut brings our politicos to their senses

  17. cosmic says:

    James Griffin,

    There are all sorts of reasons for the present energy policy, but one of them is that the British political establishment never got over the loss of empire, so we are stuck with “Britain punching above its weight”, “Having a seat at the top table” and “Britain leading the way”, generally in something silly and expensive.

    That’s what they thought they were doing with this. Saving the Doha Climate talks and so on.

    The other thing is that the CCA was passed with next to no dissent. Some MPs who didn’t agree, decided not to vote rather than be seen to vote against. So the whole of parliament has marched together in lock step with next to no opposition, and it would be hard to admit it was an enormous misjudgement and hundreds of billions have been wasted to no purpose. Generally, when you look at failed schemes, the government finds it much easier to soldier on with them than can them and fess up.

    Then there’s the EU angle, and having lead the way there as well, it’s quite hard to see any of the current lot going against it.

  18. michael hart says:

    I’ll add to Cosmic’s words.

    The de-industrialisation of the UK has favoured employment trends and wages away from engineering and the hard sciences. It should not be surprising that the education of individuals in the government, civil service and electorate comes to reflect that fact.

    Greater energy efficiency cannot be made to appear with the wave of a wand; even the Germans can’t do that. And we cannot legislate our way around having insufficient energy. Using energy price as a cudgel is a recipe for economic recession and possibly worse. Possibly much worse. But collectively, the UK has become more prone to believing poor technical advice that is founded in politics.

    If Prince Charles is a scientific ignoramus and proud of it, then that is even less of a surprise. The ruling Aristocracy of his forbears were no less welcoming to those who made wealth by industry instead of inheritance (until they themselves were sufficiently impoverished themselves to consider marrying off their daughters to the nouveau-riche).

    Arguably, such attitudes led to the creation of the United States of America, and cheap energy from oil helped rapidly propel the USA well past Britain in terms of global wealth, power, and influence.

    Our rulers today appear to have learned little, and appear obsessed with grabbing an increasing share of a cake that is getting smaller. Today we have less excuses; electorates frequently get the governments they deserve.

  19. alexjc38 says:

    BBC Radio 4 are no longer updating their public audio records from the Today programme; however, I now have full transcripts of the recent segments with Alistair Buchanan and Sir David King: