Drax will apply to install “negative emissions” technology at its main site in North Yorkshire after reversing a decision to build Europe’s biggest gas-fired power plant in the area.
The FTSE 250 power company said on Monday it would launch the process of obtaining development consent from the government for a project that would permanently capture carbon dioxide emitted when burning wood pellets, or biomass, at its plant in Selby.
Four of the six units at the plant, which is the UK’s biggest power station and started producing electricity from coal in 1974, have been converted to biomass.
Drax hopes to install negative emissions technology known as BECCS — bioenergy with carbon capture and storage — at one unit in 2027, followed by a second in 2029.
Drax argues that sustainably produced biomass is a renewable energy source as the forests from which the wood pellets are sourced absorb carbon dioxide while they are growing, which then offsets the CO2 produced when they are burned to generate electricity.
It says that up to 95 per cent of the CO2 that is emitted during the electricity generation process could be captured using BECCS, creating “negative emissions”, as more carbon would be removed from the atmosphere than has been added. The CO2 would then be transported and stored in an aquifer beneath the southern North Sea as part of a wider project to create a “zero-carbon” hub in England’s Humber region.
Environmental experts including the UK’s Climate Change Committee argue that some negative emissions will be required to meet the country’s legally binding 2050 net-zero emissions target, although there are competing technologies, including sucking CO2 directly from the atmosphere.
However, a number of campaign groups are fiercely against the use of biomass, which they argue is being falsely touted as a green fuel. Under international carbon accounting rules, emissions from biomass are counted in the land-use sector of the country in which the fuel is grown, and not in the energy sector of the country burning the fuel.
That means the biomass that is burned in power plants is classed as carbon neutral, even though combustion generates emissions.
“The emissions magically disappear on the leger even though the atmosphere sees them,” said Sasha Stashwick of the US non-profit group the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Trials of carbon capture technology began in Selby in 2019.
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Drax said the planning consent process would take up to two years. The latest announcement comes days after the company said it would not proceed with plans to convert the remaining two coal units in Selby to gas, which had been bitterly opposed by green campaigners.
Will Gardiner, Drax’s chief executive, said the addition of BECCS would mean the company was “permanently removing millions of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere and making a significant contribution to efforts to address the climate emergency, whilst creating thousands of new jobs and supporting a post-Covid economic recovery”.