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Created on: 2020-03-25 14:03:39
Last update: 2020-06-12 09:32:13 Environmental Paper Network
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|Sectors||Biomass Electric Power Generation|
About RWE biomass conversion project
RWE operates two coal power stations in the Netherlands; the Amercentrale and Eemshaven Power Stations. Since the middle of 2019, RWE has been co-firing increasing amounts of wood pellets with coal in both plants.
The Amercentrale plant has started co-firing wood pellets at the rate of 1 million tonnes per year, with ambition - and a permit - to increase this to 1.7 million tonnes. RWE has stated that it hopes to get permission and subsidies to fully convert the power station to biomass, for which the company would need to increase the rate of burning of wood pellets to 2.5 million tonnes a year. In January 2020, the Dutch environmental organization Mobilisation for the Environment (MOB) appealed against the permit that RWE received from the province of Noord-Brabant under the Nature Conservation Act (see article 2.7) for the large-scale co-firing of biomass with coal. The appeal is based on a court ruling of May 2019 which obliges the Dutch government to take strong measures to reduce nitrogen emissions and not to allow any new such emissions until nitrogen levels overall have been decreased. In its appeal, MOB has demanded the closure of the Amercentrale power station. The new Dutch Coal Act (December 2019) prohibits the Amer power plant from burning coal after 2024.
The Eemshaven Power Station has started co-firing at the rate of 0.8 million tonnes of pellets a year (equivalent to 15 percent of its coal capacity). RWE is applying for a permit to double this amount. RWE has set itself the goal of a 100% conversion to biomass combustion, which would mean burning five million tonnes of pellets annually. MOB has lodged an appeal against this application, using the same arguments as those against the co-firing permit for Amercentrale.
All of the pellets burned in Dutch coal power stations of RWE are imported. RWE refuses to disclose where its pellets are sourced from. What is known from two of their suppliers is that the company has supply agreements with the world's three biggest pellet producers: Enviva (US), Graanul Invest (Baltic States, with plans to expand into the US), and Pinnacle Pellets (British Columbia, Canada). Reports from NGOs have shown that Enviva and Graanul Invest routinely source whole logs from clearcut biodiverse forests (See Dogwood Alliance report, Biofuelwatch report). A report by the Canadian NGO Stand.earth shows that Pinnacle Pellets also sources whole trees in a region where intact biodiverse forests, including caribou habitat, are being clear-cut on a large scale. Pellet trade statistics show that the Netherlands is importing pellets from other countries, including Russia, and that RWE's lack of transparency is concerning.
Why this profile?
RWE has started transforming its two coal power plants in the Netherlands to plants that run on biomass. However, burning woody biomass emits more CO2 per unit of energy generated than coal, and the demand for wood pellets is accelerating the destruction of wildfire-rich forests.
What must happen
Banks should avoid financing RWE’s biomass conversion projects. Further, RWE should be excluded from all financial services based on its record on coal alone. The company’s conversion of coal-fired power plants to wood-pellet-burning power plants does not produce climate benefits and is linked to unsustainable deforestation. This provides additional grounds for banks to exclude all financial services to RWE, and to terminate existing corporate loans and bonds.
Human rights and social issues
Impacts from air pollution: Production of wood pellets for biomass is associated with air pollution and wood dust pollution. Long-term exposure to wood dust is linked to allergic and non-allergic respiratory and nasal disease and with dermatitis as well as two rare cancers. Studies have focussed on occupational exposure, however people living close to pellet plants can be exposed to significant levels of wood dust over long periods. Poor wood dust management has been observed and reported in relation to plants owned by Graanul Invest, communities next to Enviva plants have complained of dust and noise. Pinnacle Pellets has been criticized for failing to control wood dust, and, furthermore, they have had several explosions and fires at plants, resulting in injuries and even deaths of workers.
Climate impacts: Biomass combustion in coal-fired power stations emits even more CO2 upfront than burning coal (per unit of energy), accelerating climate change. Arguments that new trees will reabsorb the carbon emitted by burning wood pellets take no account of the long period of time before new trees mature, and the even longer period of time before forests and forest (including soil) carbon recover from the impacts of logging (presuming climate change and other environmental pressures don’t prevent this from happening altogether). Nor do they take account of the foregone sequestration of carbon by mature forests had they not been logged, nor of the permanent loss of carbon when forests are subsequently replaced with monoculture tree plantations. Hundreds of scientists have pointed out that burning wood from logged trees cannot be compatible with the need to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.
Deforestation impacts: The vast majority of the wood pellets are sourced from natural forests, which are being destroyed in the name of sustainability, whereas keeping them standing is crucial to mitigate the impacts of climate change since they are vital carbon sinks.
RWE has supply agreements with the world’s three biggest wood pellet producers, Enviva, Graanul Invest, and Pinnacle Pellets. Enviva, according to its own website, uses large quantities of hardwood from the Southeastern USA to produce its pellets. In that region, hardwood is only found in forests which are at the heart of a global biodiversity hotspot, the North American Coastal Plain. On the plantations, only softwood is grown. US NGOs Dogwood Alliance and Natural Resources Defense Council have investigated the practices and impacts of pellet production during five consecutive years since 2014. Their investigations have shown how Enviva routinely sources wood from the clearcutting of highly biodiverse, carbon-rich coastal hardwood forests.
Graanul Invest is Europe's biggest pellet producer. It is an Estonian company with pellet plants in all three Baltic States. Biofuelwatch visited Estonia in 2018 and 2019 and looked at three Graanul pellet plants and logging practices. Its research showed that Graanul, like Enviva, relies significantly on whole trees as the source of its wood pellets. Clearcutting is also the prevalent logging method in Estonia, where logging rates are far beyond what can be considered sustainable and are harmful to biodiversity as well as to the climate. Almost all of Estonia’s forests are secondary forests, with trees cut down now which had been growing since the start of the Soviet occupation in the 1940s and which are an important habitat for wildlife such as the flying squirrel and the black stork. Remnants of old growth forests remain, and even those are not safe from logging, including clearcutting. Estonia has no mature tree plantations.
Pinnacle Pellets is based in British Columbia and has been found to also use significant amounts of whole trees for making pellets. NGO investigations are still in the early stages, but clearcutting of old growth forests is rampant in British Columbia, including in areas surrounding Pinnacle Pellet plants.
For a full overview of banks financing RWE through lending and underwriting services, see here RWE's Dodgy Deal financiers webpage.
Coal power could be dramatically cut as Dutch want climate action despite pandemic
In 2018, the government awarded RWE with € 1,744 billion for co-firing wood in the Amercentrale and € 930 million for co-firing in the Eemshaven power plant, each award (so called "SDE+ subsidy") spread over a period of eight years. RWE began co-firing wood pellets with coal in both plants from mid-2019.