Drax: The largest biomass power station in the world
Yorkshire is well-known for its tea – amongst other things – yet, many people don’t realize it’s also home to one of the most talked about renewable energy projects in the western world.
Drax Power Station is the single largest producer of electricity in the UK and the largest biomass power plant in the world, with a supply chain that extends deeply into the forestry industry of the US.
In this article, we cover the past, present and future of Drax, its controversial low-carbon credentials, and its implication for the UK’s clean energy mix leading to net-zero by 2050.
A brief history of Drax power station
Drax power station was originally envisioned as a large coal power station to add capacity to the national grid while feeding electricity to the industrial Humber region of Yorkshire.
It was built throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, gradually expanding its capacity until becoming the largest coal power station at its peak but the most prominent polluter in Western Europe at the same time.
Drax experienced turbulent times following the privatisation of the UK’s energy sector and change hands many times before it finally settled into the steadiness offered by the Drax Group in 2005.
Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, the power station aggressively converted from being a coal powerhouse to producing biomass electricity, with the aim of becoming carbon negative across its supply chain by 2030, in combination with geological Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).
The billions of pounds utilized to fund this conversion came principally from government subsidies, as the UK envisages biomass energy as part of the fuel mix that will guarantee the energy security of the UK while meeting its 2050 net-zero targets.
What is the current situation at Drax?
Drax is a thermal power station, meaning it uses the heat generated from combustion to turn water into pressurised steam that turns energy turbines that produce electricity by spinning an electric generator.
Currently, Drax has six boilers where this burning occurs, four of which have been converted to burn biomass, predominantly in the form of wood pellets, while the remaining two are firing a mix of petroleum coke (a residue of oil processing) and coal.
Drax currently provides 12% of the UK’s base-load renewable electricity, which is essential for energy security as it can ramp up production during spikes in demand or reduced output from other renewables like wind or solar.
One of the main issues with wind and solar is their dependence on weather conditions, which is not the case at Drax, where wood pellet burning can be adjusted at short notice.
Drax ceased to burn coal commercially in 2021 and is currently doing so only to fulfil its capacity market obligations until the end of this year.
But with the energy crisis in full fledge, we speculate that the possibility of generating emergency coal power this winter at Drax is not out of the question.
Why did Drax switch from coal to biomass?
Drax’s infrastructure is worth billions of pounds and is optimized for transporting, stockpiling and burning colossal amounts of raw materials, previously in the form of coal.
Once the government consolidated its green energy policies in the 2000s, the Drax Group decided that switching to biomass burning was the logical solution for producing low-carbon energy while upcycling the existing infrastructure.
Drax went all-in and re-fitted its boilers for wood pellets while setting up an elaborate supply chain to source the most climate-positive wood pellets available from the large forestry industry of the US.
The reality is that the UK does not have the biomass supply required to power Drax, as over 7 million metric tonnes of wood pellets were imported from the US in 2017.
How are wood pellets manufactured?
Wood pellet production can be compared to the process of making sausages in the meat industry.
The residue woodchips from US lumbermills are mixed with those produced from the left-over remnants of hardwood harvesting (i.e. smaller branches, sticks and logs), and then compressed into dense pellets with a high calorific value that are easy to transport and store.
The majority of wood pellet manufacturers have set up shop in proximity to the port of Baton Rouge in Louisiana (US) where the pellets are loaded in bulk into vessels headed for Yorkshire ports like Hull.
In the UK, the process of unloading is fully optimized and automated, and the wood pellets are ultimately transported via rail into Drax.
Are wood pellets a sustainable source of biomass energy?
This depends entirely on the life cycle of the pellets, with its sourcing and scale being the most important factor affecting its environmental impact.
As a hypothetical example, the worst-case scenario would involve sourcing biomass from the illegal deforestation of primary tropical forests, processing it into wood pellets in a coal-powered facility very far from the UK, and shipping it over in questionable vessels that also carry toxic materials.
Now, according to this short documentary starring famous environmentalist Tony Juniper, wood pellet sourcing at Drax has been painstakingly prepared to make sure it’s climate-positive in the long term.
It argues that the increase in demand for wood residues from timber harvesting adds extra value to planting trees, which is encouraging landowners to plant more trees as it makes long-term harvesting more profitable.
Drax’s strict due diligence process when choosing biomass suppliers, which includes independent sustainability audits, means that local forestry projects must be managing their land to very high standards in order to be a part of Drax’s supply chain.
Drax also carries out detailed life-cycle carbon accounting that includes the sourcing and processing of woodchips, as well as transportation and burning of the wood pellets in Yorkshire.
It is constantly finding ways of making its whole supply chain as low-carbon as possible, which is currently 80% cleaner than that of extracting, transporting and burning coal.
The growth of these managed forest areas has been steadily surpassing harvesting year-on-year and has even revitalised some rural communities in the US, aided by increased demand from Drax.
Ultimately, considering the apparently large scale of Drax’s operation, its demand only represents a small fraction of the US wood harvesting industry as a whole, with most of it ultimately going to meet the local demand for paper production and construction.
What are the drawbacks of Drax’s biomass plan?
Many environmental groups and researchers do not agree that biomass is overall climate positive.
Many believe that many projects don’t follow sustainable practices and that the carbon offset delay between the slow growth of a tree compared to its instant combustion in a furnace is not representative of the current urgency for emissions reduction.
Also, there is peer-reviewed research that indicates that the carbon emissions from biomass are actually larger than coal, which may be part of the reason that Drax Group has been recently excluded from the S&P index of the world’s greenest energy companies following the exclusion of biomass as clean energy.
Some environmental NGOs have also published evidence that some of the wood pellet manufacturers, including one of Drax’s suppliers Enviva, have been using hardwood and clearing entire forest areas to produce wood pellets.
What is the endgame for Drax?
Regardless of the criticisms, the reality is that the UK government has already poured billions of pounds onto Drax in the form of subsidies and is unlikely to make a U-turn on its decision.
Responsibly sourced biomass energy in conjunction with geological carbon capture and storage (CCS) is expected to make the process overall carbon negative, with the entire Humber area of Yorkshire becoming a clean industry hub.
Having a pipeline nearby into offshore North Sea platforms, projects like HumberZero are dedicating resources to offshore carbon capture and hydrogen production (hydrogen being deemed as one of the fuels of the future) by leveraging Drax’s clean energy.
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See here our answers for some of the frequently asked questions about Drax on the internet; it may help you find the answers you are looking for.
Who owns Drax Power station?
The owners are Drax Group, a company listed on the London Stock Exchange that is part of the FTSE 250 Index that includes some of the UK’s largest businesses.
Drax Power Limited is the operator of the power station and is also owned by Drax Group.
Naturally, the group also owns a large part of the international biomass supply chain, given that it is directly involved in it.
Where is Drax Power station?
Drax is named after the village and civil parish in the Selby District of North Yorkshire, where the power plant is located.
This location is strategic as its part of the Humber industrial area of Yorkshire, which is envisaged to become one of the clean industry hubs of the UK.
Is Drax Power station closing?
Despite all the controversy behind biomass, Drax Power Station is actually one of the most rapidly adapting energy producers in the UK and is likely to keep receiving billions of pounds from government subsidies in the future.
How does Drax Power station work?
We explain this in more detail here:
Drax Power station is a thermal power station that burns both biomass and coal to produce electricity for the national grid.
Is Drax power station still open?
It’s not closed, so yes, it is open for business!
Can other types of pellets be burnt at Drax?
This is a question for the engineering team at Drax, but we speculate that given that they have experimented with different types of biomass over the development, this is not out of the question.
We have written before about using Spent Coffee Ground (SCG) pellets from the UK’s enormous coffee industry to make electricity, and we speculate that Drax could use this to reduce their carbon footprint even more.