Renewable Energy Doesn’t Mean Clean Energy

SELBY, U.K. – The heavy power lines and narrow roads between the steam-billowing towers of three of England’s biggest power plants traverse an energy industry in upheaval. Shuttered coal mines are flanked by emerald pastures. Towering wind turbines and solar arrays have taken root in windblown cereal fields.

In the middle of the transition is the Drax Power Station — Western Europe’s largest coal power plant, as big and powerful as many nuclear stations. The 4-gigawatt facility was built in the 1970s and ‘80s in this bucolic Yorkshire parish to burn the fruits of a local coal-mining boom. Droves of miners arrived in double-decker bus loads at a region known as Megawatt Valley.

“We used to sit on the doorstep — me and the kids — singing, ‘Hi ho, hi ho,’” said Pamela Ross, a former mine administrative worker and union rep. In the dining room of a converted farmhouse between castle remnants and two village thoroughfares, where she has lived since 1988, she rifled through yellowing government documents and photos of mine groundbreakings, lamenting the wheezing of what once was a strapping local industry. “We have hundreds of years of coal still underground,” she said. “But it’s likely to stay there.”

Nostalgia about the coal sector’s misfortune is far from universal. The cheap black rock that powered the Industrial Revolution is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels. As the world cracks down on climate pollution and deadly air pollution, it’s scrambling to deploy cleaner energy alternatives. The European Union has led the world in passing stringent climate laws — and urging the rest of the world to follow.

In England and across Europe, the most popular source of renewable energy is wood. But chopping down trees — many of them in the U.S. — and burning the wood heats the planet more quickly than burning coal. Yet plants like Drax receive financial support to switch from coal to wood. That’s because of an entrenched loophole in the EU’s climate rules.

That loophole treats electricity generated by burning wood as a “carbon neutral” or “zero emissions” energy source — the same as solar panels or wind turbines. When power plants in major European countries burn wood, the only carbon dioxide pollution they report is from the burning of fossil fuels needed to manufacture and transport the woody fuel. European law assumes climate pollution released directly by burning fuel made from trees doesn’t matter, because it will be re-absorbed by trees that grow to replace them.

The assumption is convenient, but wrong. Climate science has been rejecting it for more than 20 years. It ignores the decades it can take for a replacement forest to grow to be as big as one that was chopped down for energy— or the possibility that it won’t regrow at all. The assumption also ignores the loss of a tree’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide after it gets cut down, pelletized and vaporized.

The accounting trick allows the energy industry to pump tens of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year and pretend it doesn’t exist. MORE

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