UK-based “clean” energy company Drax Group is looking to sell offset credits tied to US-based power plants that the company hasn’t even built yet, Bloomberg reports. While the company is being vague about specifics, Drax says its first biomass plant with carbon capture technology is expected to be up and running by 2030.
The future US power plants that Drax plans to build rely on a type of carbon dioxide capture technology that hasn’t yet been proven to capture carbon emissions on a large scale. The idea is that the plants will operate on biomass energy—burning wood chips for fuel—to produce electricity; the carbon capture technology will then collect the CO2 emissions produced during that process, turning them into a liquid form and storing them underground.
In September, Drax signed a deal with Respira International, a carbon finance business, to sell Respira 2 million tons of carbon removal credits. This could be the largest volume of carbon dioxide removals ever traded based solely on a future power plant, according to Bloomberg.
The company claims on its website that storing the emissions from the biomass plants it will build ensures that the electricity generated during the wood chip burning can be considered carbon neutral or even “carbon negative.” This is because trees absorb carbon as they grow and release oxygen. These claims are tenuous, to say the least.
Drax has conducted small-scale trials on the method it plans to use at the plants since 2019, using technology from a UK-based startup called C-Capture. But the success of these smaller trials does not necessarily mean that this specific technology would work on a commercial scale, Bloomberg points out. The process is also expensive and will have to rely heavily on government subsidies or charging customers higher prices to offset costs.
The idea that biomass burning itself is a “sustainable” form of energy production also has huge accounting holes. This form of carbon capture does not account for other parts of the wood chip production that release emissions. This includes how planting and harvesting trees for the wood creates emissions and then how those chips are transported, as one chemical engineer described. Studies have shown that burning trees can emit more carbon than coal and that it would take more than 90 years to “pay back” the carbon debt created by chopping down trees for fuel.
Despite these big hurdles, Drax seems optimistic that the tech will eventually work on a commercial scale. “Our ambition is to remove 4 million tons of CO2 through bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS),” the company wrote in an online post.
Drax has a history of selling green energy claims based on tenuous scientific information. Last February, Mississippi’s Department of Environmental Quality said Drax for $2.5 million, alleging that the company’s wood pellet-producing plants in Mississippi had produced three to four times the amount of air pollution allowed. All the while, Drax called his huge UK power station—which used wood chips imported from its Mississippi plants—the “largest renewable power station” in the country.
Carbon dioxide removal, known as CDR, has become a go-to climate solution for the ultra-wealthy. In January 2021, Elon Musk tweeted about throwing $100 million to whoever could come up with the best carbon capture technology. But one of our best bets for mitigating climate change and emissions as a society is by simply phasing out fossil fuels.
“There’s no viable path to stopping climate change that doesn’t begin with stopping emissions as quickly as we can,” Jonathan Foley, the executive director of Project Drawdown, which focuses on existing climate solutions, told Earther last year. “Do you know how hard it is to remove CO2 from the air using the machine? It’s really, really hard. It’s a lot easier just not to put it in there.”