Christian M. 10 min read

Drax: The largest biomass power station in the world

Yorkshire is well-known for its tea, among other things, yet many people don’t realise it’s also home to one of the world’s most controversial renewable energy projects.

Drax Power Station is the single largest producer of electricity in the UK and the largest biomass power plant in the world, its supply chain extending deeply into American forests.

This article covers Drax’s past, present, and future, its controversial low-carbon credentials, and its implications for the UK’s clean energy mix, leading to net zero by 2050.

A brief history of Drax Power Station

Drax is a thermal power station that uses combustion-generated heat to turn water into pressurised steam that produces electricity by turning an electric turbine (generator).

It was originally envisioned as the main power source for the industrial Humber region of Yorkshire, with any excess capacity from its coal-power boilers destined for the national grid.

It was gradually built and expanded throughout the 1960s to the 1980s, eventually becoming Europe’s largest coal power station (and most prominent polluter) at its peak.

Drax experienced turbulent times following the UK’s privatisation of the energy sector, changing hands multiple times before finding stability when purchased by the Drax Group in 2005.

With the shift toward green policies in the 2000-10s, Drax envisaged a bold transition into ‘carbon negative’ biomass electricity as its only means of keeping its colossal infrastructure alive. It would need to adjust its boilers to burn wood pellets instead of coal and adopt geological Carbon Capture and Storage (CCUS).

How would they fund this? Drax utilised UK government green policies that envisaged biomass energy as an integral part of the ‘green fuel mix’ that would guarantee energy security while keeping up with 2050 net-zero targets.

Using these business energy grants, Drax converted four of its six coal-powered boilers to work on biomass energy and closed its last remaining coal unit in 2023.

Drax biomass conversion timeline

Here’s a concise timeline of Drax’s rapid conversion to adapt to changing times:

2004Selby Coalfield, Drax’s main feedstock mine, closes down.
2008Drax begins co-firing biomass with coal.
2012Drax secures funding and approval to convert coal units to biomass.
2012 - 2018Conversion of coal units into biomass. Unit 1 (2013), unit 2 (2014), Unit 3 (2016), Unit 4 (2018). Two remaining coal units are needed for grid balancing services at the request of the national grid.
2023Drax final coal unit closes. Drax generates 4% of the UK’s electricity.
2027Drax’s subsidies end.

What is the current situation at Drax?

Drax currently generates 4% of the UK’s electricity mix from four converted biomass boiler units that run predominantly on wood pellets produced abroad. It closed its last coal unit closed in 2023.

Unlike wind or solar power, Drax’s electricity output doesn’t depend on weather conditions but on its wood pellets supply, which is kept predictably well-stocked in its storage yard.

Drax can generate dependable baseload renewable electricity, which can be adjusted to national supply and demand within minutes at the national grid’s request.

Drax primarily received subsidies from the UK government through Contracts for Difference (CfDs) and the now defunct Renewables Obligations scheme, which expires in 2027.

Drax’s pending biomass with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) implementation is uncertain, especially with the prospect of cheap energy storage technologies like flow batteries looking brighter than ever.

However, these are uncertain times, and all it would take is a repeat of the recent energy crisis to highlight the importance of reliable power over unquestionably clean energy.

Why did Drax switch from coal to biomass?

Drax’s infrastructure is worth billions of pounds and is optimised for transporting, stockpiling, and burning colossal amounts of raw materials, previously (until 2023) coal.

Once the government consolidated its green energy policies in the 2000s and ’10s, the Drax Group decided that upcycling the existing infrastructure by switching to biomass burning was the logical solution for producing low-carbon energy and adapting to changing times.

With the help of the UK government, 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, with the remaining coming from Canada and the Baltic Countries.

Why look abroad? The UK does not have enough biomass output to power Drax’s four biomass units which consumed 8.4 million tonnes of pellets and other woody material in 2021.

Here are some estimates on the source of these wood pellets:

CountryEstimated annual tonnage
United States3.2 million tonnes
Canada350,000 tonnes
Estonia122,000 tonnes

How are wood pellets manufactured?

Most wood pellet production is akin to making sausage in the meat industry, the goal being using residues to make a calorific product.

Woodchip residues from across the US, Canadian and Baltic wood industries (i.e. lumber mills, hardwood harvesting, etc.) are gathered and compressed into dense pellets that are easy to store and transport and have a high calorific value.

Most wood pellet producers in the US (which represents the bulk of the stock) have set up shop near Baton Rouge in Louisiana. There, pellets are loaded in bulk into vessels headed for the UK ports of Immingham and Liverpool, which are optimised for bulk wood cargos.

The final journey into Drax’s stockyard is typically via rail.

💡 Sawdust controversy: According to NRDC, Drax’s appetite for wood is causing the felling of whole trees for sawdust, not just the residues from the existing forestry industry. This has been observed in the US, Canada and Estonia.

Are wood pellets a sustainable source of biomass energy?

This depends entirely on the life cycle of the wood pellets, particularly how the sawdust is sourced and the rate and scale at which it is being generated. While Drax argues that its sourcing is sustainable, others, like the NRDC, argue that growing demand is causing the opposite.

The case for sustainable wood pellets at Drax

According to a recent documentary starring famous environmentalist Tony Juniper, wood pellet sourcing at Drax has been painstakingly prepared to ensure climate positivity in the long term.

It argues that the increase in demand for wood residues from timber harvesting adds extra value to tree planting, encouraging landowners to plant more trees faster to make long-term harvesting more profitable.

It quotes Drax’s strict due diligence process when choosing biomass suppliers. This process includes independent sustainability audits that require local forestry projects to manage their land to very high environmental standards in order to be part of Drax’s supply chain.

It also mentions detailed life-cycle carbon accounting, according to which it is currently 80% cleaner to burn biomass than ti is to extract, transport and burn coal (now deprecated) at Drax.

The growth of these managed forest areas has steadily exceeded harvesting year-on-year and has even revitalised some rural communities in the US, aided by increased demand from Drax.

Ultimately, Drax’s demand for biomass only represents a small fraction of the US wood harvesting industry, with most biomass destined to meet local demand for paper production and wood construction.

The case for unsustainable wood pellets at Drax

As a hypothetical example, the worst-case scenario would involve sourcing biomass from illegal wood harvesting in primary forests, processing it into wood pellets at coal-powered facilities in countries that do not comply with environmental regulations, and transporting it over very long distances on questionable vessels into UK ports.

According to NRDC, however, Drax’s growing demand for wood pellets (up by 15% in 6 years) can only be met by relaxing sustainability rules. They claim that half of the material Drax burns comes from whole trees and not from logging residues.

This is reflected by the growing demand from Estonia, which had its Environmental board halt all logging operations in forests protected by EU law due to evidence of mismanagement.

The same applies to Canada, where a recent scandal revealed that biomass logging was even occurring amongst famous primary forests in British Columbia and the Boreal.

What are the drawbacks of Drax’s biomass plan?

Many environmental groups and researchers disagree that biomass is good for the climate (See the case for unsustainable biomass at Drax).

They 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, peer-reviewed research indicates that biomass’s carbon emissions are actually larger than those from coal, which may be part of the reason that Drax Group was recently excluded from the S&P index of the world’s greenest energy companies following the exclusion of biomass as clean energy.

What is the endgame for Drax?

Regardless of the criticisms, the UK government has already subsidised Drax with billions of pounds and may only reverse its decision starting in 2027 when these come under review.

Responsibly sourced biomass energy in conjunction with geological carbon capture and storage (CCUS) is expected to make the process overall carbon negative, with the entire Humber area of Yorkshire becoming a clean industry hub hosting the largest CCUS project in the world.

With a pipeline nearby into offshore North Sea platforms, projects like HumberZero are dedicating resources to offshore carbon capture and green hydrogen production by leveraging Drax’s clean energy.

Business Energy Suppliers

The Drax Group is also involved in business energy supply, is one of the ‘big six’, and is especially well-known and successful under the Opus Energy brand.

Use our AquaSwitch business energy comparison service to compare suppliers like Drax to get the best deal possible for your business needs. Choose between green business energy contracts, improved customer service, or cheaper commercial electricity rates.


Our business energy experts answer commonly asked questions on Drax.

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 power station operator and is also owned by Drax Group.

The group also owns wood pellet manufacturing facilities across the US and Canada in a bid to have direct influence over the international supply chain of Drax’s feedstock.

The group owns several hydroelectric schemes in Scotland, including the Cruachan Power Station, which is known for its pumped storage hydro capabilities.

Drax is also a business energy supplier and a commercial gas supplier serving companies in the UK, with its subsidiary Opus Energy focusing on small and medium-sized business energy.

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 it is part of the Humber industrial area of Yorkshire, which is envisaged to become one of the UK’s clean industry hubs.

Is Drax Power station closing?

No. While Drax Power Station closed its last coal unit in 2023, it continues generating biomass power from its converted units, currently producing about 4% of the UK’s electricity.

Being both a cornerstone renewable and baseload power source, it is very unlikely that Drax will close anytime soon, although its reception of government subsidies is due a review in 2027, which may affect its long-term future.

How does Drax Power station work?

Drax Power Station is a thermal power plant that burns wood pellets in its four converted boiler units to produce baseload electricity and grid stability services for the national grid. See here for details on how burning wood pellets generates electricity.

It receives wood pellets via rail and keeps them stored in its stockyard, which holds up to 80,000 metric tons of wood pellets in four large domes, each for each boiler.

Is Drax power station still open?

Yes. Drax Power Station typically operates near full capacity, generating 4% of the UK’s electricity.

Can other types of pellets be burnt at Drax?

Drax Power Station is specifically configured to burn wood pellets, particularly those made from compressed sawdust.

However, is it technically possible to use other types such as Spent Coffee Ground pellets sourced from the UK’s cafe industry, as these can also generate large amounts of heat from combustion.

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