drax power station

Carbon capture facility could cut Drax power station output by a third

Image credit: DT

Drax power station’s plans to install a carbon capture facility on site could see its total energy output drop by a third, potentially risking blackouts in North Yorkshire, environmental campaigners have said.

Under figures released by Drax, for the two generating units for which its carbon capture planning application applies, net electricity capacity will be reduced from 1,302MWe to 931MWe. This represents a sizable 28 per cent drop in its energy output in comparison to pre-carbon capture figures.

Over the last decade, four of the power station’s six generating units have been converted to use sustainable biomass, which Drax claims has an 80 per cent lower carbon footprint compared to when they used coal.

Its carbon capture plans have been focused on eliminating emissions from those units rather than the two remaining coal units, which were due to be shut down next month. The UK government recently extended their lifespan by six months due to the concerns over energy shortages in the winter.

According to Almuth Ernsting, a campaigner at Biofuelwatch, Drax’s carbon capture proposal makes “no sense” with regards to addressing the climate crisis.

“Drax burns more than eight million tonnes of imported wood pellets every year, many of them sourced from clearcutting of highly biodiverse forests in the south-eastern USA,” she said.

“If we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change we need to not only stop putting more and more CO2 into the atmosphere, but we also need to protect the world’s forest ecosystems and allow them to expand so that they can sequester CO2 already in the atmosphere. Drax’s large-scale burning of forest wood undermines that vital aim.”

Ernsting also cast doubt on Drax’s calculations that carbon capture would only reduce its generator’s energy output by 28 per cent.

Globally, there is only one commercial-scale carbon capture project that involves solid fuel: a 115MW coal plant in Saskatchewan, Canada. That plant’s carbon capture facility incurs an energy penalty of 31 per cent.

“There are certain processes where carbon capture is happening where you have an almost pure stream of carbon dioxide; for example, in fertiliser production and ethanol fermentation,” Ernsting said.

“There you’ve got a stream of pure carbon dioxide mixed with water vapour that is much more efficient to capture and you don’t suffer such huge energy losses.

“What you have with coal, biomass or other fuels is relatively low concentrations of CO2 in the flue gases. They’re very, very mixed and that’s what makes it much more challenging, expensive and energy intensive.”

Drax has long been an early adopter of carbon capture technologies ever since a government-funded test of the technology in 2012 which used emissions from the plant.

With the UK already facing the possibility of blackouts this winter as the energy crisis bites, reducing the output of a key power station in order to trial carbon capture technology risks placing greater strain on an electricity grid already struggling to cope.

A Drax spokesperson said: “To maximise the delivery of renewable power and negative emissions, the two bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) units would be designed for baseload power and negative emissions generation, supporting UK energy security by supplying reliable, renewable power to the grid.

“Adding carbon capture to two of our bioenergy units means Drax Power Station can deliver renewable power and negative emissions, which no other technology can deliver. Both are essential in delivering the UK’s decarbonisation and net zero targets and for energy security.”

Drax plans to source up to 80 per cent of the materials and services it needs to build its BECCS project from British businesses and recently announced a partnership with British Steel to source raw material from its Scunthorpe and Teesside steelworks.

Elly Pepper, senior advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said: “Drax’s carbon capture plans are bad news for the climate and for keeping the lights on.

“The company has shown it can’t be trusted with the environment and now it’s showing it can’t be trusted with the UK’s energy security. This is a bad bet for two reasons: capturing carbon uses a lot of energy, leaving a lot less for families and homes; relying on burning wood keeps the UK hooked on imports of foreign materials that can fluctuate wildly in price just like gas and oil.

“The cheapest, most secure ways to keep the lights on and bring down bills are building more wind, solar and investing in home energy efficiency measures. Instead, the UK government is paying Drax over £1bn every year to burn the world’s forests.”

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