Drax could close coal plants early, defends ‘vital’ biomass

Major energy supplier Drax could be ‘coal free’ ahead of the government imposed 2025 deadline, according to the company. The announcement has reignited a long standing controversy over the environmental credentials of wood based biomass.

Drax is the owner of the largest power station in western Europe, in Yorkshire, UK. The company has so far upgraded half of this power station to run on sustainably produced wood pellets. Earlier this week, the company signed up to the UK-Canadian Powering Past Coal Alliance which seeks to end the use of coal by 2030 in ‘developed countries’.

“Unabated coal does not have a long term role to play in our low carbon future. The government made it very clear earlier this year that it wants the UK’s power sector to be coal free in 2025 – and we will achieve that, and possibly even beat it,” said Drax Group CEO Will Gardiner at the Bloomberg Future of Energy Summit in New York. Drax announced its participation in the Alliance at the summit.

“We’re exploring options for repowering our remaining coal units to use sustainable biomass and gas which we believe could help us to become coal free even earlier than the 2025 deadline,” Gardiner continued.

In the UK there’s already been an 84% reduction in power generation from coal in the last five years, while Drax is set to convert a fourth generating unit from coal to biomass later this year.


Over reliance on biomass?

Environmental campaigners have long expressed concerns over Drax’s use of biomass in its bid to phase out fossil fuels. This has led to questions in some quarters about the latest announcement.

“Phasing out coal ahead of the government—mandated deadline is great, but what you replace coal with matters,” said Sasha Stashwick, senior advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in a statement.

“Truly clean energy technologies like solar and wind can meet the UK’s demand for new electricity and provide the security of supply the UK needs as it phases out coal – and they can do this at lower cost than burning biomass. Yet, what Drax is primarily celebrating here is its coal-to-biomass conversions, in which it burns chipped up trees shipped in from around the world.”

NRDC has previously alleged that wood pellet exports to the UK to power Drax’s power stations are damaging US forests.

“Far from a clean alternative to coal, Drax’s burning of trees for electricity emits as much or even more carbon pollution as burning coal or natural gas, and is contributing to the destruction of the most stunning and ecologically valuable forests in the US Southeast.

“What would be worthy of praise is if Drax looked at ways of investing in truly clean energy that benefits UK citizens and the environment it has spent so many years impacting.”


Biomass is vital

Responding to Stashwick’s statement, Andy Koss, Drax Power CEO, told Bioenergy Insight, “Our biomass operations provide flexible, reliable renewable power, helping to keep the lights on and costs down. Technologies like wind and solar are excellent for reducing our carbon emissions and are an important part of the energy mix, but they are intermittent and so need other technologies to support them, to maintain secure power supplies.

“That’s why biomass is vital - it is the only reliable and flexible renewable which can provide the grid with the full range of support services, the need for which is expected to increase as more intermittent renewables come online.

“Our biomass generating units deliver carbon savings of 80% compared to when they used coal. The majority of the wood we use comes from sustainable working forests in the US South where the primary product is timber used to supply other industries. We take the low grade material not suitable for other use. These sustainably managed working forests are growing in size, increasing by over 100% since the 1950s.”

This article was written by Daryl Worthington, editor of Bioenergy Insight 




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