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Drax Addresses Biomass Supply Sustainability Risks

An official from Drax Power recently made the statement that the company’s biggest unquantified risk is ensuring the sustainability of its biomass fuel.
By Lisa Gibson | May 11, 2012

An official from Drax Power recently made the statement that the company’s biggest unquantified risk is ensuring the sustainability of its biomass fuel.

Drax, one of the largest power producers in the U.K., co-fires in its largest power station and has been back and forth on whether it will actually develop its proposed dedicated biomass facilities. Government support is the biggest issue the company has pointed to, but it sounds like sustainably sourced feedstock supply ranks right up there with it.

And it is a risk. Forest certification programs do exist, but, similar to standard systems for wood pellets, they are all over the map. So many programs in play and most, if not all, are confusing for landowners, as well as buyers. The supply is there, but making sure it’s meeting evolving sustainability criteria is a whole different ball game. Drax has stopped contracts because of a lack of provision data, which clearly violates the company’s strict sustainability rules across all stages “from field to furnace.”

The U.K. does have sustainability rules in place and the European Union is considering regulations. And about 19 percent of U.S. forests are certified to three major U.S. standards.  But different programs come with different rules and categories, complicating the process for companies like Drax that source their biomass from both the U.K. and North America.

I see the problem and recognize the potential nightmare for Drax and others. It seems RWE worked around it by building its own pellet mill in the U.S. and sourcing all its biomass from that mill and the same forests that consistently follow the same standards.

It may be an impossible task, but I think the best scenario is one that involves a biomass industry-wide forest certification and sustainability set of standards, regardless of country. No questions. No confusion. I realize different forest types, soil types and locations will have different standards, and it’s a big job, probably bigger than I can fathom.

But ensuring the sustainability of a biomass feedstock source is not an issue to take lightly. Suppliers need to take notice because I can promise that Drax is not the only company that has or will stop a contract and refuse to buy feedstock on the grounds that they were provided inadequate sustainability data. And I wouldn’t blame them.