That the coal phase-out is under way in much of Europe – albeit far too slow – should be unequivocally good news for the climate. Sadly, this is not always the case: a growing number of coal plants, rather than being shut down, are being converted to, or replaced with, other high carbon fuels, namely wood and gas. Fossil gas clearly fuels the climate catastrophe. The impacts of converting coal plants to burn wood are less well known.
Biomass is a false climate solution. It creates major air pollution problems at the site of combustion and exacerbates climate change through very high per-megawatt- hour releases of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Carbon is also released when trees are felled to make the wood pellets that are burned in biomass plants. A lot of this wood comes from clear-cutting biodiverse hardwood forests in places like the south eastern USA and Estonia. Monoculture plantations are expanding to meet growing demand for biomass, while increasing numbers of wood pellet production facilities in the poor rural communities in south eastern USA are forcing residents to endure high levels of air and noise pollution. If European coal companies were allowed to complete their planned conversions to biomass, it would double global demand for wood pellets – every single year, suppliers would need to cut down the equivalent of half of Germany’s Black Forest.
Burning biomass in the identified coal-to-biomass projects would emit the same amount of CO2 as half of the emissions from Poland’s coal power stations. This CO2 is unlikely to be reabsorbed by biomass (e.g. forest) regrowth over time-scales relevant to meeting commitments under the Paris Agreement.
Coal-to-biomass conversions cannot happen without high subsidies. In the UK, subsidies for Drax biomass power plant amount to €1.5 million every day, and the plant would shut down if this amount was cut substantially. In several other countries in the EU, coal power stations have also been converted to biomass or are co-firing large quantities of wood with coal. In the Netherlands, RWE and Uniper receive even more subsidies for burning wood in coal plants than Drax does (per unit of energy). In Germany, the industry is lobbying hard for similar subsidies from its government.