Drax’s vast power turbines have been a hulking presence on the Yorkshire skyline since the 1970s and 1980s.
At one stage, they burned their way through up to 36,000 tonnes of coal every day to power more than 2m homes.
With the Government banishing coal from the electricity system, the FTSE 250 company has spent the last few years swapping that coal for biomass, shipping over wood-chip from forests deep in the southern US to fuel its turbines.
Burning biomass is carbon intensive, but is counted as neutral in the UK under carbon accounting rules. Now Drax is pushing ahead with another technology designed to try and help the country hit its carbon-cutting targets – placing Selby in North Yorkshire at the heart of the UK’s push to reduce emissions.
Led by its Harvard-educated chief executive Will Gardiner, Drax wants to scrub carbon emissions from its biomass turbines and stash them underground in the North Sea, planning a £2bn project that could support 10,000 jobs at its peak.
It says this will generate so-called “negative emissions” which can help offset other areas where it is hard to remove carbon emissions, while also providing a reliable source of power from biomass.
Today Drax has announced a major step forward in a deal with Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries for the solvent technology needed. Mitsubishi’s technology will be used at its power station near Selby in what Drax describes as the world’s largest ‘carbon-negative’ power project.
Burning biomass has plenty of critics, but many energy experts support the idea.
“There are challenges on sustainability, but our view is that those can be managed. It is very difficult to see how we can hit our carbon budget without negative emissions,” says Guy Newey of the Energy Systems Catapult and former government advisor.
Drax’s tie up with Mitsubishi is seen as a positive sign for wider efforts to get carbon capture technology installed at scale around the UK, stripping carbon emissions out of heavy industry and power stations, and providing a new purpose for depleted oil and gas fields in the North Sea.
What is carbon capture and how does it work?
There have been many false starts for the technology, with the Government pulling a £1bn fund in 2015 – earning a rebuke from oil and gas giant Shell who wanted to develop a site.
But the drive has taken on new impetus in light of the UK’s legally binding aim to hit net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and growing pressure on oil and gas giants to overhaul their operations and help in the fight against climate change.
Several areas are now hoping to build carbon capture projects, including the Humber – connected to Drax’s efforts – and in Teesside, Merseyside and north-east Scotland, with BP, Shell, Equinor and others all involved.
Government is planning to distribute the first tranche of £1bn in funding to selected projects by October. It has also been devising ways of incentivising developers to build.
The Climate Change Committee, which advises and holds the Government to account on its net zero mission, said as far back as 2019 that CCS (carbon capture and storage) was a “necessity not an option”.
It suggested that about 175m tons of carbon dioxide would need to be captured in the UK by 2050 – more than four times as much as the 40m tons being captured globally.
Last year, the Prime Minister said he wanted the UK to become a “world leader” in the emerging technology, removing 10mt of carbon dioxide by 2030 – about as much as is currently emitted by the Humber industrial region today.
Its appeal is growing as a major potential provider of jobs in areas that might otherwise be hit by the drive to slash carbon emissions, and in the beleaguered North Sea oil and gas industry.
How carbon capture and storage works
“The politics have really changed,” adds Newey. “You now have constituencies that really want to develop it and where it would be a big win for the incumbent.”
Nick Cooper, chief executive of Storegga Geotechnologies, which is backed by Macquarie and Mitsui and is leading the Acorn project for carbon capture in north-east Scotland, says rising carbon prices are also providing a major push to the market.
“I think we have gone through a bit of a tipping point in the last six months to the point where we can be highly confident that all of these clusters can be delivered,” he says.
“A lot of the emitters in the UK and Europe need to find solutions from the middle of the decade onwards. They can see the direction of travel in terms of fiscal policy. Emitters have more confidence that this is real now – they are stepping up to almost reserve their position and be part of the solution and not miss out."
Collectively, he added "we could well blow the doors off the 10mt by 2030 target.”
How much that will all cost and who will pay for it is as yet unanswered, with the Government likely to spread costs between bill payers and taxpayers. It is hoped that costs will fall rapidly with repetition and scale.
"We have the ability to bring costs down a lot through economies of scale – shared infrastructure in places like the Humber will really help," says Luke Warren, chief executive of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association.
Mr Cooper says he has seen recent analysis showing the amount needed for contracts for difference [a subsidy mechanism that adds cost to energy bills] for carbon capture "was a fraction of the amount needed for offshore wind".
Drax is pushing the Government to come up with a subsidy mechanism specific to the market for so-called negative emissions, which are likely to have a separate business case.
It believes companies that remove carbon should get a “credit”. These could then be traded in the same way that companies that produce renewable energy certificates trade those today.
A recent report for Drax by Frontier Economics highlighted estimates from the CCS that costs of the technology on biomass power stations could be between £70-£150 per ton of carbon dioxide.
“This is likely to compare favourably to decarbonising hard to tackle sectors, including some parts of industry and aviation,” it says.
However, not everyone is convinced. A report published last month by Ember, a non-profit organisation, claimed that subsidies on the project would cost British consumers £31.7bn over 25 years.
Drax has dismissed those concerns. “The numbers in that report were based on outdated assumptions and a new-build Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) power plant, whereas our plans are for a retrofit at Drax,” a Drax spokesman said.
Will Gardiner, Drax’s boss, adds: “Carbon capture technologies like BECCS are going to be absolutely vital in the fight against the climate crisis.
“Subject to the right regulatory framework being in place, Drax stands ready to invest further in this essential negative emissions technology.”