Drax faces accusations from Bloomberg it turned off power generation at one of its biomass units, so it could avoid handing out hundreds of millions of pounds to energy billpayers – claims it vigorously denies.
While Drax’s business decisions are now under scrutiny, the company has also faced criticism for the energy source it depends on to generate energy at four of its six power units.
Biomass generation is considered a renewable energy source by the government, because new trees are planted to replace old ones used in sourcing wood.
These new trees are expected to recapture the carbon emitted by burning the pellets.
When used in high-efficiency wood pellet stoves and boilers, biomass pellets can offer combustion efficiency as high as 85 per cent – making it highly prolific as an energy source
There is also a carbon saving in clearing out residue such as forestry leavings and sawmill shavings which could otherwise release more emissions intensive methane gas.
Overall, Drax’s biomass power plant is responsible for around 11 per cent of the UK’s renewable power, helping to tide over government energy supplies last winter.
However, recapturing the carbon from wood pellets takes decades, and the off-setting can only work if the pellets are made with wood from sustainable sources.
It also produces high emissions of carbon dioxide per unit of energy – rivalling fossil fuels.
A report from Ember earlier this month calculated that the Drax Power Station is the largest emitter in the country.
Chief executive Will Gardiner told then BEIS Select Committee chief Darren Jones last November the emissions from the power plant were distinct from the emissions produced fossil fuel sites.
“It’s a different type of emission, which needs to be recognised as important,” he said, during the session.
A month earlier, Drax was accused by BBC’s Panorama team of importing wood pellets from carbon rich forests in Canada, extracting pellets from mature forests rather than younger trees – claims it rejects.
At the time, a spokesperson said: “Drax does not harvest forests and has not taken any material directly from the two areas the BBC has looked at. The forests in British Columbia are harvested for high value timber used in construction, not the production of biomass.”
Drax reported profits of £731m in 2022, up from £398m in 2021 as it cashed in on soaring power prices.
Collectively, it has received £6bn in green energy subsidies from British taxpayers over the last four-decades.
As a next stage for biomass, Westminster’s Climate Change Committee is in favour of plans to make biomass carbon negative by capturing and burying the emissions under the North Sea in depleted oil and gas fields.
It is opposed to extending the subsidy regime for biomass beyond its end date in 2027, as it argues the energy source is too expensive and “even sustainable biomass supplies have significant lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions” in its latest report.
Drax is currently locked in talks with the government over upgrading its facilities with a £2bn biomass carbon capture development, with the company looking for its legacy renewable contracts to remain supported over the development of the project.