Two topics come up again and again regarding sustainable manufacturing — materials and energy. What something it made of and the energy used to make it contribute hugely to the overall  environmental impacts. So the easiest win for many processes is simply to switch from fossil fuel derived energy to something renewable. Yeah but…

The BBC recently published further details of a Panorama investigation (for the non-UK, Panorama is the BBC’s flagship investigative journalism programme) into the sourcing of fuel for a ‘renewable’ energy plant in the UK.

The Drax power station near Selby in north Yorkshire was first commissioned as a coal-burning plant back in 1974 but has since been expanded and some generating units converted to biomass. The station includes 4 x 645MW biomass fired units and produces around 14 terawatt-hours (TWh), enough to power 5 million UK homes. 

The biomass used at Drax comes in the form of wood pellets. I live close to the route of the Mid Cheshire Line, a railway running from Chester to Manchester across Cheshire. I often see — and smell — the Drax train when out walking. It smells like freshly opened flat-pack furniture. A sweet, woody smell that is really quite pleasant.

All of the biomass burned by Drax is imported and a lot comes from Canada. It is shipped into the docks at Liverpool and elsewhere and moved by train up to Selby. It is sourcing of this wood that throws a shadow over the true sustainability at play here.

The plant has received something in the region of £6 billion from the UK government, which sees it as a key player in the bid to reduce UK plc’s overall CO2 output. 

There’s no doubt that burning wood is better than burning coal in that respect. That the CO2 emitted doesn’t have to be accounted for in the UK because it is accounted for in the country where the trees are felled. So it’s more ‘shifting’ than ‘reducing’? Whatever. Drax puts out ‘free’ CO2 for the purposes of the UK’s national accounting.

But anyway, this is only half the problem. 

The other factor is the sourcing of the wood in the first place. Well-managed pine plantations (or, more generously, forests) can surely provide a steady stream of mostly-renewable energy that could, for example, be used to support a fully renewables-based grid when it’s not sunny (most of the time in north Yorkshire) and not windy (almost none of the time in north Yorkshire).

But Drax, the BBC alleges, is using wood from old-growth Canadian forests. Wood that is in areas classified as ‘priority deferral areas’. The BBC reports that a independent panel of experts describe this category as forests that are “rare, at risk and irreplaceable”.

All of this simply serves to underscore two points when it comes to sustainability: 

  1. It’s fiendishly hard to track impacts through complex international supply chains
  2. People will always bend, break or ignore the ‘rules’ if it’s cheaper or easier than complying
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