Biomass and carbon capture put UK coal giant on track to negative emissions

By Jonny Wakefield

August13, 2015

One of the UK’s largest power plants could soon be absorbing more carbon than it emits, thanks to a potentially groundbreaking system of biomass and carbon capture (CCS).

Since July, the Drax power station in central England has been producing half its power by burning biomass, according to a report in New Scientist, part of a plan to wean the facility off coal. Starting in 2020, the plant also expects to pump CO2 emissions through a pipeline running to the floor of the North Sea, where it will be buried in saltwater aquifers.

The shift to biomass and carbon capture is part of an ambitious plan to convert the 70s-era facility into a “negative emissions” power plant. Developing such technology is key to “arresting” climate change, the company says. But the plan is not without its critics, some of whom say Drax is far from a net positive in fighting climate change. 

Several pieces must fall into place for Drax to be truly carbon neutral, chief among them forestry management. The wood and other material burned in the biomass process is harvested from pine forests in the southern U.S. and processed into pellets for shipping. Demand for biomass products has created a forestry renaissance in the region, with pine forests covering hundreds of thousands of old cotton fields. As forests are cut, new trees are planted that offset the carbon emissions from those being burned.

Whether a balance can be struck between carbon emissions in one part of the world and carbon uptake in another is key. A Dogwood Alliance spokesperson told New Scientist that plants like Drax gobble up “naturally regenerated diverse pine forests,” replacing them with “uniform ranks of planted yellow pine.”

The other half of the equation, the CCS plan, also has doubters. The plant would follow in Canada’s footsteps. When Saskatchewan’s Boundary Dam coal plant became the first commercial power facility to bury carbon in October, critics pointed out that the process doesn’t entirely eliminate carbon emissions. The process’s commercial viability is also in question, with wary investors sending Drax shares plunging at the news of its costly CCS plan. 

Drax has publicly criticized the British wind and solar sector for such concerns, telling the Telegraph that windmills and PV panels can’t deliver even one per cent of the UK’s power needs “with reasonable regularity.”

Biomass and CCS are crucial to the UK’s power mix, Drax director Peter Emery told New Scientist.

“To arrest climate change we need negative carbon emissions. At the moment sustainable biomass with CCS is the leading technology to achieve this,” he said.



Photo Credit: Ian Britton