The controversial energy technology that may save or doom us

In 166 news articles, the tech has been called both a “necessary mitigation tool” and an “environmental disaster.”
Loukia Papadopoulos
A picture of a Drax Group plant.jpg
A picture of a Drax Group plant.

Drax Group 

A new study is exploring the debate around bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), a controversial type of energy technology that has been called both a “necessary mitigation tool” and an “environmental disaster.”

The technology consists of burning plants and trees while capturing the ensuing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and storing them underground.

Understanding public opinion and acceptance

Researchers at the University of Southampton have studied how BECCS is featured in 166 newspaper articles to try and comprehend how the tech will be received particularly for people in the UK since the nation is relying heavily on the energy type in order to create a net-zero economy by 2050.

This is according to a press release from the institution.

“With public understanding of BECCS so limited, the media has a crucial role in shaping debate and opinion on the technology,” said Caspar Donnison, Research Fellow in Biological Sciences at the University of Southampton and lead author of the research.

“We’ve seen in the fracking debate how competing storylines are used to influence social acceptance of a new technology, and ultimately whether it becomes part of the UK’s energy mix or not.”

The study found eight key storylines surrounding the subject both for and against the tech. On the for side were Necessary mitigation tool; Keeping the lights on; Anchor for transition; and Revolutionary technology. On the against side were Worse than coal; Environmental disaster; No silver bullet; and Distraction.

One story line in particular dominated, showing up in more than half of the coverage. It was the Necessary mitigation tool approach and was promoted heavily by the CEO of Drax Group, a power generation business that has plans to operate the world’s largest BECCS facility at its power station in Yorkshire. 

“Drax’s proposals in Yorkshire have had a major influence on the UK debate, driving more articles from three regional newspapers than all the national coverage combined,” said Professor Gail Taylor, co-author of the paper and John B Orr Distinguished Professor of Environmental Plant Sciences, University of California, Davis. 

“The pro-BECCS coalition enjoyed greater dominance in local news media, where the necessity framing was complemented with the promise of socioeconomic benefits to the region.”

Limited evidence

The study also found that much of the against coverage was unsubstantiated. The Worse than coal storyline was found to have “limited evidence, that biomass combustion results in similar CO2 emissions to coal, that this carbon may not be re-absorbed by replanting trees and that supply-chain emissions add to the carbon cost.” However some critics have made logical arguments stating that using land in order to plant crops for BECCS will put further pressure on biodiversity and crowd out the food crops necessary to feed the growing world population.

Overall the study revealed very divided opinions with passionate claims on both sides.

“The UK government is relying on BECCS to help deliver their net-zero strategy but the battle for public opinion is far from won,” explained Donnison.

“Our research shows a targeted, limited deployment of BECCS using sustainably sourced biomass could have broad national appeal. But if public concerns aren’t addressed, the government will have to look to a fast-diminishing list of alternative technological and policy options.”

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