Dominic Lawson: Another Renewables Plan That’s Gone Up In Smoke

  • Date: 27/05/18
  • Dominic Lawson, The Sunday Times

Subsidies for burning biomass — better known as wood — never made sense

Please could you reassure your readers,” said the charming young man from the environment department, “that we have not banned wood-burning stoves? No one will have them taken away.” His anxiety was understandable. There is a mutinous stirring in the countryside, following the strictures issued by his boss, Michael Gove. In his Clean Air Strategy, launched last week, the environment secretary indicated that various types of stove would have to be taken off the market because the amount of soot they produce sends too many of us choking into an unnecessarily early grave.

It’s all very confusing. For years we have been actively encouraged by government to switch our domestic fuel supply to wood, on the grounds that it is much less damaging “to the planet” than burning fossil fuels. My family home, unconnected to the gas grid, is fuelled by oil brought in by small tankers. But we have woodland; and I have often been tempted by the leaflets that get posted to us, advertising the subsidies we could enjoy if we switched to a wood-burning stove.

These are not just from companies flogging the things (“Not only do you get the benefit of installing a stunning wood pellet boiler, but you also earn money from it — up to £11,900 over the next seven years starting from the moment it is fitted”). The hard sells come from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, too. “Welcome to the domestic renewable heat incentive (RHI) payment calculator,” it cheerily told us a couple of years ago, with the additional happy news that there would be an increase of almost 70% in the domestic RHI biomass subsidy.

Biomass is, in this context, just a fancy word for wood, though it can apply to other organic materials. And it has been sold as the government’s big idea in the battle to “combat climate change”. When five years ago a bill was pushed through parliament to increase the potential subsidies for biomass burning, Viscount Ridley — better known as the science writer Matt Ridley — presciently but unavailingly warned his colleagues: “This is a really bad idea. It will cost a fortune, worsen air pollution, exacerbate dependency on foreign energy and increase greenhouse gas emissions compared with burning gas.”

The flagship of the government policy was the Drax power station in Yorkshire, which in return for switching from coal to wood is now receiving more than half a billion pounds a year in subsidy from the taxpayer. The wood pellets burnt at Drax largely come from the southeastern United States, in a vast, highly mechanised operation.

Given this, not to mention the lorries carrying the wood to American ports, the ships that take the stuff across the Atlantic and the diesel-powered transport that completes the journey across the UK to Drax (at the rate of 14 trains a day), one can only goggle at the government’s previous assertion that it assumed “no net emissions [of CO2] during production”.

Even if that, impossibly, were the case, there’s still the little matter of the particulates (aka soot) generated by the colossal wood-burning programme. As Ridley pointed out at the time, everyone knew that ploughing more subsidies into biomass heating of domestic homes was almost certain to break the law on air quality.

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