Drax: cutting coal ahead of schedule

The UK’s biggest power plant, Drax in North Yorkshire, has announced it will end all coal-fired power generation by March 2021, well ahead of the UK’s 2025 deadline for reaching net-zero. Scarlett Evans spoke to Drax’s managers to find out more about the plant’s post-coal future. 

Image: Drax

Almost 50 years of coal-fired energy generation at Drax Power Station is expected to come to an end in March 2021 - a landmark moment in the UK’s efforts to reach net-zero emissions by 2025, and part of Drax’s own personal milestone in becoming carbon negative by 2030. The power station has already converted four of its six units to biomass, and now the two coal units will ramp down, remaining online after 2021 only to honour its existing capacity market agreements.

The news has also been followed by the announced closures of other coal-fired facilities in the UK, Fiddler’s Ferry in Cheshire, and Aberthaw power station in Wales, marking the beginning of a significant turn away from this carbon-intensive source.

/ Drax recognised over a decade ago that the writing was on the wall for coal. /

A new leaf for Drax

Will Gardiner, Drax Group CEO, says that the company began planning to move away from coal more than ten years ago.

“Drax recognised over a decade ago that the writing was on the wall for coal,” he says. “That was when work began to transform the power station using sustainable biomass.”

Over that proceeding decade, four of the power station’s six generating units have been converted to use biomass, delivering carbon savings of more than 80% compared to when coal was used. The site is also working on plans to develop bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), as part of its overall efforts to achieve a carbon negative status by 2030.

/ Drax recognised over a decade ago that the writing was on the wall for coal. /

The road to a greener future was not, however, without obstacles, and Gardiner says it required not only technological changes to the site’s operations, but also the creation of a new global supply chain to deliver it. The push to achieve its renewable ambitions also saw Drax investing more than £700m into the site’s conversion - the majority of which went towards fuel handling and delivery systems.

Yet the investment has seemingly paid off - and Drax has been transformed into the UK’s largest renewable power generator and the biggest decarbonisation project in Europe, with the capacity to generate electricity for six million households.

In addition, the site’s provision of 5,700 jobs throughout its supply chain is no mean feat considering the climate of closures currently happening across coal-fired power stations. Indeed, Drax may be seen as something of an example for others in the industry seeking to pursue low-carbon alternatives.

/ The power station could become the anchor for the UK’s first zero carbon industrial cluster. /

A green pioneer?

Perhaps most exciting in Drax’s evolution is its development of BECCS, which has been highlighted by both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the UK Committee on Climate Change as instrumental in achieving net zero emissions. In the UK Committee on Climate Change’s ‘Net Zero’ report, BECCS was estimated to be able to generate up to 173TWh of electricity by 2050, and capture up to 51 million tonnes of CO2 .

“The highly skilled, innovative engineers who were integral in transforming the power station from coal to biomass have now turned their attention to pioneering the negative emissions technology BECCS,” says Gardiner. “This is the only negative emissions technology which enables the permanent removal of CO2 from the atmosphere whilst renewable electricity is generated.”

The BECCS pilot plant at the station was in fact a global first - successfully capturing carbon from a 100% biomass feedstock.

“With an effective negative emissions policy and investment framework,” Gardiner adds, “BECCS could be deployed on the first biomass generating unit at Drax as soon as 2027.”

/ The power station could become the anchor for the UK’s first zero carbon industrial cluster. /

The site’s proposed use of BECCS has led some to predict it could become the ‘anchor’ for the Zero Carbon Humber initiative - a scheme intended to establish the UK’s Humber region as the first net zero industrial economy in the world.

“Deploying BECCS at scale here could enable other industries to decarbonise across the Humber – the region of the UK where more carbon is emitted than anywhere else due to the high concentration of industry,” says Gardiner.

“The power station could become the anchor for the UK’s first zero carbon industrial cluster, whereby the infrastructure needed to transport the CO2 from Drax to be stored in aquifers under the North Sea, could also be used by other industrial emitters in the North.”

This, Gardiner says, would help industries in the region to decarbonise operations, and safeguard 55,000 jobs in the process.

While the example of Drax may ramp up efforts by other UK operations to kickstart their own transition to renewable sources, the site is not alone in its early response to the UK’s 2025 target.

/ the International Energy Agency said last December that cheap natural gas had shattered coal’s competitiveness in the European Union in 2019. /

Coal’s loosening hold

The closure of other UK coal-fired facilities - including Fiddler’s Ferry in Cheshire, and Aberthaw power station in Wales - are tangible indicators of the country’s dwindling interest in coal-fired power, and when you look at the figures, previously-sourced data also validates this change.

Statistics released by the UK government at the end of March showed that coal-powered electricity dropped by nearly 60% in 2019 as compared to the previous year, with plant closures and coal’s dwindling popularity cited as primary reasons for this. In addition, the International Energy Agency said last December that cheap natural gas had “shattered coal’s competitiveness in the European Union in 2019.”

/ The International Energy Agency said last December that cheap natural gas had shattered coal’s competitiveness in the European Union in 2019. /

On a global scale, there is also a marked shift away from this carbon intensive power source. In January, Germany’s federal government announced its decision to phase out coal-fired power stations, and both Austria and Sweden have this year unplugged their remaining coal-fired power stations from the grid - Vartaverket in Stockholm and Mellach near the Austrian city of Graz.

Other European countries are also expected to follow suit by 2025 or earlier, including France, Slovakia Portugal, Ireland, and Italy - all of which have zero-carbon targets between 2022 and 2025. Such moves are necessary to adhere to the Paris Agreement - which targets 2030 to end coal generation in Europe.

Playing catch-up in the US

“In Europe, offshore wind has been there for a number of years, but I think in the United States we're a little bit behind that,” said Karustis.

Should it be successful, Halo’s approach could lead to a surge in US onshore wind, which has historically lagged behind other regions in terms of wind installation and production. Since 2016, according to the International Energy Agency, the US has installed just 22.6GW of new onshore wind capacity, compared to 30.7GW in the EU, and 50.3GW in China, struggles that Karustis hopes to address.

Last December, the Chinese Government approved a number of new offshore wind projects, totalling 13GW of production and costing around $13.3bn, as the country continues to invest in utility-scale power. Karustis hopes projects like Halo’s distributed turbine can contribute to a more balanced wind sector in the US, with both large- and small-scale operations expanding renewable power.

“The large-scale wind turbines wouldn't be phased out, it's kind of an ‘all of the above’ thing,” he said. “The large wind farms play a very important role for us in reducing the carbon footprint globally, and hopefully the micro wind market is going to augment that by producing energy where energy is being used. It's a good two-pronged approach.”

This two-pronged approach also includes other renewable power sources, including solar and utility-scale wind; Halo is not trying to replace all clean energy with its turbines, but offer another option for people eager to engage in renewable power, who may have been historically sidelined due to the high costs of building utility-scale facilities or the unsuitable geographical characteristics of the places they live.

“When you look at that market we're very excited because just as megawatt-scale wind is a large market, I think distributed wind can be as big of a market or bigger over time,” said Karustis.

“When you have incentives and improvements in the technology, the costs go down, so you can be more competitive and compete, and that's certainly the case with megawatt-scale wind,” he continued. “Just 15/20 years ago, it wasn't competitive with natural gas [and] coal, but it is now. So those government policies have helped and they've driven the technology improvements, so it's all bundled together.”