Tuesday 14 November 2023

Biomass & litigating against Drax's costly little game

As noted here before, there's something ludicrous and indeed ultimately dangerous in governments making targets that are "legally binding" - particularly targets of the purely aspirational / virtue-signaling[1] kind - thereby inviting lawsuits when somebody can find an argument that the target won't be met.  My earlier observation was that governments will soon tire of this costly game, and will find ways to imunise themselves against it.  The best thing is not to set "legally binding targets" in the first place, because the alternative remedy against endless litigation is to put government beyond the law, a very dangerous step indeed.  

Anyhow: someone has seen fit to litigate against HMG for its ridiculous "BECCS" policy - bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.  For those unfamiliar with the notion: some kinds of bioenergy may fairly reckoned to be (almost) carbon neutral.  If one captures this energy output (e.g. as electricity), and permanently sequestrates the CO2 emitted in the process, one may with equal fairness be reckoned to have achieved "negative emissions" (subject to having accurately reckoned on the extra energy, emissions etc needed for this entire operation). 

Even on its own terms[2], there's a gigantic flaw in this logic (along with some smaller difficulties).  In practical terms and with existing technology, to do this on the industrial scale required to be useful, the range of biofuels that may be employed is essentially confined to rather high-quality wood, which only comes from the trunks and boughs of mature trees.  But using these as fuel is far from carbon neutral over anything like a sensible timeframe.  Even with perfect counterfactuals the resulting "carbon debt" is measured in decades or even centuries; or maybe it's outright irrecoverable.  Drax - the world's biggest tree-burner, likes everyone to believe they are burning bits of old bark and sweepings from the carpenter's floor - but that's utter bollocks.  The bio-stuff that genuinely doesn't incur much carbon debt when it's used as fuel (e.g. the aforesaid crud; the products of coppicing; fast-growing reeds etc) just can't be used by Drax - it simply ain't the right quality to be used by their kit.

But.  The UK's plans for achieving NZC 2050 are wholly dependent on BECCS - just as indeed are the UK's credentials as regards its current CO2 performance significantly dependent upon Drax and a handful of other industrial-scale tree-burning power stations, whose contribution to the UK's numbers (not to mention whose subsidies) depends upon a "carbon accounting" sleight of hand which allows them to ignore the carbon debt they run up when burning high-quality timber.  Drax isn't reducing CO2 emissions right now (as it is being subsidised to do), it is in fact increasing CO2, because burning biomass with long carbon debt is even more CO2-intensive than coal-burning; and twice as much as burning gas, which in the UK is nowadays the only practical alternative[3].  

The whole thing is a multi-billion pound scam that consumes our money and whole forests every year; and should never have seen the light of day (courtesy of the two successive LibDem energy secretaries, Huhne and Davey, the former of whom has benefitted financially from the biomass industry, post his other disgrace).  We're stuck with it until 2027 (when the subsidies run out), but there is absolutely no need to extend Drax's scam beyond that date and allow it to be the pioneer of BECCS, as it intends - and as HMG seems intent on encouraging.

Why is it tolerated?  Easy: as well as the spurious CO2-reduction credits for both Drax and HMG, the electricity is flexible ("despatchable"); the fuel can be obtained from friendly nations; and there are lots of UK jobs involved - the logistical side of shifting millions of tonnes of wood pellets every year has become quite an industry, not to mention the jobs that are envisaged for building the BECCS set-up.  

The parties bringing the litigation with the aim of calling a halt to all this, are drawing the High Court's attention to the total lack of scientific logic behind the BECCS concept in practice.  

It will be interesting to see what the justices make of it.  Much as I dislike the "lawfare" phenomenon, on this occasion I reckon the lawsuit has merit.



[1] Nobody will do anything about this before the next GE: and we then run the risk of a Starmer government legislating for "legally binding targets" on a range of ghastly woke social-engineering goals.  Plenty on the redistributive / reparationist left will welcome this with open arms.

[2] There is absolutely no point in arguing against it on other terms.  You may like the sound of your own voice but otherwise you'll not get a hearing.

[3] Incidentally, there's evidence Drax may not even be living up to the crazy low standards of "sustainability" they are obliged to meet now, sleight-of-hand and all, let alone any stricter ones that would be appropriate in terms of the genuine science and logic of the situation.


Matt said...

The UK is truly screwed. We're led by donkeys with the electorate being entirely to blame for this state of affairs.

I read a comment recently that voters couldn't be expected to do something about the political class because they were too busy dealing with the cost of living crisis. But that's caused by the politicians so the way to solve it is to do something different at the ballot box.

Diogenes said...

Judicial Reviews (JR) come and go. They are relatively inexpensive if you have pro-bono KC's on hand but they don't always pay off.

They are used by 'lefty-leaning' lawyers and 'righty-leaning' (I assume that is the phrase) lawyers whenever they want to discomfit the government or even for a Trump-like fund raising venture. Know one charity that issues hundreds of copies of its template JR pre-action letter which is usually used to put the thumbscrews on the DWP.

You can go along to the High Court and sit in on it these JR and be bored to tears with the pompous windbags the poor HC Judges have to listen to. More sound than light on the issue is usually the outcome.

Or you can wait for the judgment to be published on Bailii but rarely is the result clear cut. It will be like the Rwandan result today - something for everyone to latch onto to claim some sort of victory.

Anonymous said...

"the electorate being entirely to blame for this state of affairs"

To be fair to the Brits, a YUGE chunk, maybe a third, of the electorate has been imported, at first for cheap labour purposes, in the Blair era for ideological reasons "to rub the right's noses in diversity" - and latterly for cheap labour and high rents purposes.

We've been heaping up our own funeral pyre for 60 years now. Just as the Brit colonists in Virginia and Mississippi should have picked their own damn cotton, we should have clipped our own damn bus-tickets and wiped our own granny's bottoms.

dearieme said...

Thank you for that, ND.

I don't follow the detail of all this Green stuff since, like anyone who's numerate and has even a nodding acquaintance with the Laws of Thermodynamics, I know it to be tosh, swaddled in twaddle, and puffed up with poppycock.

It's therefore refreshing to learn that it's not only the physics/engineering that's rubbish, but so is the legal structure jerry-built for it.

Anonymous said...

I presume by the way that the "carbon capture" element of Drax is still "at the experimental stage" - where I confidently expect it to remain until Drax has looted enough taxpayer cash.

Wasn't Hugo Drax a Bond villain?

Nick Drew said...

@ I presume by the way that the "carbon capture" element of Drax is still "at the experimental stage"

yes - as indeed is the 'S'. Types of CC (there is more than one technology) have been demonstrated fairly conclusively for emissions arising from coal burning . It is an energy-consuming process (& so reduces the efficiency of the power operation). HOWEVER the same approach hasn't yet been satisfactorily developed for gas-fired power generation, NOR biomass. Drax is still working on that.

The storage aspect leaves something to be desired, too. People have been pumping CO2 down holes into oil reservoirs for decades (there's a North Sea field that started doing it in the 1980s) - but that is for enhanced oil recovery, & nobody much cares if it comes back to the surface again.

So will it stay where it's put 'forever'? Greens are wont to say that when you pump stuff down a fracking well at high pressure, it often seeps out! And forever is a very long time. One thing's for sure: the companies proposing to do this stuff won't be putting their fees / subsidies etc into escrow in case of future leakage and a refund being called for ...

Anonymous said...

So HMG are paying Drax in exchange for a "carbon IOU" which may (let's face it, WILL) turn out to be valueless. As I recall the thing to do in such cases is to sell anything solid of value to opaque offshore entities, take everything out in divis and bonuses then in the unlikely event of HMG demanding their money back, declare bankruptcy - and blimey, there are no assets!

Anonymous said...

ND - I know you weren't a great fan of the CEGB, British Gas etc with their featherbedding - but given the scale of the current shambles, isn't there an argument for public ownership? Or would the politicians just hoist the same "green" figleaf onto the public bodies?

Nick Drew said...

isn't there an argument for public ownership?

there's an excellent theoretical argument for public ownership: it's just that it breaks down in the face of all experience

there is certainly a good argument for public finance, for anything that's huge and with big upfront costs and a long life. Logically, that needs to attract the very cheapest possible finance

I consider there are some workable middle-positions to be had. But nothing is remotely imbecile-proof, and civil servants' ignorance of the Ways of the World often has them promoting imbecile policies - these days, to politicians who can't apply any reality-check of their own wisdom & experience

Matt said...

The NHS is run by the public sector and manages to be completely crap. They have numerous cases of killing mothers and babies in maternity units across the entire country.

What makes anyone think the public sector can run anything sucessfully?

Matt said...

Timely article from the BBC to back up my point about the NHS - https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-67238868

No, more money won't help. Plus we don't have any more money even if it would a difference.

Sobers said...

"Plus we don't have any more money even if it would a difference."

Oh yes we do have more money, the 'we' being the people of the country who pay for it all eventually. We just prefer to spend it on other things (holidays, expensive cups of coffee, iPhones, Sky TV, smoking & drinking, eating out all the time etc etc) and hope 'someone else' will be forced to pay for our healthcare via the tax system. After all people manage to find the money to pay for the healthcare of the 11m cats, 12m dogs and 850k horses that live in the UK. If they can find that money they can find more to pay for their own healthcare.

Anonymous said...

Matt - despite the many many problems of the NHS - and believe me, I have first-hand knowledge - the US spends far more per capita for very similar outcomes.

Even now, if your condition is flagged as "urgent - might die any day untreated" by an NHS algorithm, you'll find find yourself being treated within a few days, whereas if it's "a pain, but not immediately life threatening" you can go back and back on the waiting list, months turning into years.

The very worst thing is communications, both internal and external. A patient can have three different procedures/investigations, all related to the same condition, at the same hospital, yet the consultant he sees for procedure 1 doesn't get updated about investigation 2 and procedure 3. Don't ask me how this is even possible.

As for external (patient) comms, a patient sees the surgeon for a pre-op chat, the surgeon leaves and is not replaced for 5 months (and then with a locum), patient sits waiting for op promised in 5 months, rings 6 months later and finds the waiting list hasn't moved and no-one's informed the patients on the list that they have no surgeon. There are lots of administrators at each trust, again I don't know how this lack of communication is possible.

Anonymous said...

Still, I believe our aid to Ukraine stands at £15 billion so far. I'm sure all the million or so New Britons per annum who Boris and Rishi are inviting will be happy to contribute and will rush to the flag if their country calls, whichever country that may be.

Nick Drew said...

@ I don't know how this lack of communication is possible

carrying on with this OT strand:

the one that defeats me is when you call for an ambulance: obviously you'll often be left waiting a very long time, but then ... two (or even three) arrive and the house is suddenly full of first responders tripping over each other. If you are the responsible adult, you have to repeat yourself endlessly - & keep a very careful ear out for chinese whispers gaining traction.

Eventually you get to A&E - where you have to tell it all over again (maybe more than once). Surely there must be some way of transmitting the first version ahead to the hospital?? This kind of double / triple / quadruple data-entry is just crazy - & very time-consuming

outfits like Uber & Deliveroo consider themselves IT companies, end of story. They (and many more besides) come up with stellar software - why can't someone do it for the NHS**? The problem is universal, endlessly the same, and repeated 000's of times a day. For crying out loud.
** does any nation's first-response / A&E setup get this right?

Anonymous said...

"They (and many more besides) come up with stellar software - why can't someone do it for the NHS**"

My great fear has always been that with mucho fanfare NHS comms will be outsourced to some Yank outfit who'll build a mighty pile of excrement at huge expense. In fact I think that's been tried once.

A friend of a friend of a friend, a medic, is the guy who put together the data structures for the NHS IT (who then IIRC immediately sold the concepts to the Septics). He's semi-retired but I'll ask him about comms and why they're so crap.

Anonymous said...

On first response, I and the wife, a nurse, were in the garden one day and heard the unmistakeable sound of a car or motorbike crash on the main road.

Wandered down to see, found 2 bikes and 4 occupants on the ground, methinks they'd been playing silly buggers alongside each other, they touch and off they came. Needed patching, lots of cuts/abrasions/contusions but nothing life threatening.

She's checking them on the grass verge when we hear sirens, police car with all lights going hurtles up at 60+ in our 30 limit village. Then another. Then another. Then another. All driving like maniacs. I think we counted 6 police cars before an ambulance arrived, we wheeled the slightly bent bikes into our garden and waved them off.

There must have been 0 police cars in at least two towns, all for a small bump.

Matt said...

Now imagine that your immediate treatment on the NHS relied on state supplied reliable electricity. Oops, we didn't communicate the lack of wind to the backup gas fired power station so the grid went down. Backup genny didn't kick in because JSO picketed a refinery.

Nick Drew said...

since we're firmly OT ...

when I wrote "This kind of double / triple / quadruple data-entry is just crazy" above, I should have added that it's plainly not beyond the NHS to recognise this

BECAUSE they've already solved it at the in-patient ward level. When nurses comes round doing the patient bodily-data checks (this might not be the correct technical expression), e.g. heart rate, BP, etc etc etc, be this routine or ad hoc, they immediately record these into a central system, accessible to all. Sometimes the monitoring kit they are using does this automatically.

I was first cued in to the significance of this when my father was in hospital with a serious condition: while I was visiting one day, a nurse did one of the routine data-gather sessions as described above. A few minutes later a doctor from a department other than the one treating old Mr D came steaming up: she'd been scanning a batch of recent inputs, spotted an anomaly, and came up to see for herself.

Now that's proper collection & use of data! It Can Be Done ...

Caeser Hēméra said...

@ND - with some of the data collection, it is done due to "measure twice, cut once", but that is usually personal information so there is issue of mishearing, mistyping, etc, or medication, where someone might have forgotten some medication the patient takes at first, but remembers it later.

As for the more medical aspects, that might be down to Airwave being a bit old, and the replacement doing about as well in terms of cost and deadlines as most of government IT and infrastructure projects.

The new version - when/if it arrives - should allow better access to spine data.

Anonymous said...

I see the Guardian is suddenly catching up with the idea that coal burning AND oil burning are at record levels, rather than "yesterday's energy" as they try to impress into indoctrinated millennials.


"The abundance of climate-heating gases in the atmosphere reached record highs in 2022, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has reported. The WMO said “there is no end in sight to the rising trend”, which is largely driven by the burning of fossil fuels."

To repeat myself, coal burning hit a new record high in 2022, and oil burning is set for a record high in 2023. The UK's responsible for <1% of this.

And Germany is still dropping down the tubes at high speed. One of the reasons for Rheinmetall's tripling of the cost of 155mm shells for Ukraine is the US destruction of NS2.

Haber-Bosch ammonia production, root base of explosives and fertiliser, takes a lot of energy. That's why Russia is churning out vast quantities of both.