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Drax axes plans to build new biomass power stations

Paul Hudson | 17:21 UK time, Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The company which owns Drax power station in North Yorkshire, which is the largest single producer of electricity and carbon dioxide in the country, has announced that a £1.4 billion plan to build 2 of 3 new dedicated biomass power stations have been shelved.

The third of the planned power stations, at Immingham, may still go ahead at a later date.

The decision comes following an ongoing review of renewables and their subsidy levels, details of which were announced in October last year.

In the review the government recognised that burning biomass alongside coal in so called 'co-firing' power stations, which already happens at the existing Drax power station near Selby, is a much more economical way of producing green electricity and involves lower subsidy levels, than building new dedicated biomass power stations.

At the moment, Drax power station has the capability to produce 12.5% of its output from sustainable biomass, the remainder from coal, but is not utilising that capability to the full because the current level of support makes it uneconomical to do so.

As a result of the proposed changes to subsidy levels announced in the review, which come into force in April 2013, Drax has said that it will be able to burn more biomass in place of coal, investing £50 million this year to increase its biomass co-firing capability to 20%, thus reducing its carbon footprint.

This investment will enable the company to store and handle increased amounts of biomass meaning that an additional 300MW of the total power generated by the Drax facility will be 'green energy' from biomass.

Under the original plans, one of the proposed new dedicated biomass plants that was to be built alongside Drax would have cost £600-£700 million, but crucially would have only generated the same 300MW of green electricity.

Because the level of subsidy that Drax would receive recognises the associated costs of the technology, the subsidy they receive by going down this new route - which is effectively paid by consumers on electricity bills - will be much lower.

In short, the government have indicated that it is much more cost effective to eventually convert coal fired power stations to biomass power stations than it is to build new ones, and that this is a long term aim, as they strive to drastically reduce the country's carbon footprint.


  • Comment number 1.

    Not is it only uneconomical for them to use biomass it also does not make a profit for thier fuel suppliers the rates they pay for the fuel when getting a £75/tnne subsidy off the govt for using biomass and only paying £90 for the product(which costs £110/tnne to produce)
    Another major problem is that there is not enough biomass in the UK to supply these schemes . At least Drax have seen the reality in the whole industry not the cow muck that is being spread by the politicians.

  • Comment number 2.

    The DRAX proposal to co-fire biomass provides some direct environmental gains by replacing dirtier coal but there is a reduction in efficiency from use of biomass which requires consideration. Biomass also has a much lower energy density which increases transport impact this is highlighted by DRAX proposal to import the biomass thousands of miles from Nth and Sth America. This proposal reflects DECC / Arup report confirming biomass demand will require 90% import .
    Stand alone biomass energy proposals demand comparison with gas fired powerplants. Gov data details 27% efficiency for biomass with much higher 58% for gas fired equivalent. Most important factor is that pollution burden per unit of useful power out indicates biomass combustion air quality degradation impact will be 30 times higher than gas. This concern is highlighted by Gov energy report in 2009 which detailed use of biomass will add £2,803 million to health and environmental costs due to impact of air quality degradation.
    We need to embrace full cost of all impact consequences resulting from energy decisions and not fixate on CO2. Biomass combustion emissions contain all the ingredients directly linked to COPD, Asthma, strokes , cardiovascular and respiratory problems so joined up thinking, due diligence and duty of care is needed in energy decisions to ensure minimal damage.
    Rgds Brian Wilson

  • Comment number 3.

    Just shows there are no easy answers. I'm always a bit wary of biomass. If it is genuinely sustainable - like crop waste or reedbeds- it is perhaps worth a go.

    But much purpose grown biomass is very dubious indeed. It can conflict with land space for food crops - or alternatively use otherwise uncultivated land thus potentially having an undesirable ecological impact.

    A possible exception might be woodland coppice. But it would seem improbable that old woodlands would have sufficient output, whilst new coppice would be ecologically sterile for a long time, I would have thought.

  • Comment number 4.

    Why can't these power stations burn household rubbish instead of sending it to landfill? Can't they filter the smoke so it is safe?

  • Comment number 5.

    @4 Mr-Bluesky

    You have answered your own question. The air quality issue is mainly what is used in planning objections (along with traffic issues). There is also a question on the 'fuel', in that as recycling increases year on year you reduce the fuel supply.

  • Comment number 6.

    Mr Blue Sky. Sheffield incinerates its house hold waste to create heat for inner city homes. As far as I know there is no pollution from the site at all. The site was updated in the last few years.

  • Comment number 7.

    Further to the Sheffield incinerator find the following information, it actually reduces C02 emissions http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheffield_Incinerator.

  • Comment number 8.

    When it is stated that the Drax power station is the "single largest producer of electricity and carbon dioxide in the country", is that CO2 in the form of pollution, or as an actual product for use in industry? I was surprised to lean that there is a plant in the N.E. which actually produces CO2 for industrial use, I think in the carbonated drinks industry. That seems strange, given the amount of unwanted CO2 which is produced. Is there no way that the CO2 can be extracted from that which is already in the atmosphre? I wonder how much carbonated drinks add to the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.
    I have always been doubtful about the value of building biomass power stations, especially if the biomass has to be imported.
    jkiller56, your talk of using reedbeds and old woodland coppice does not strike me as being very environmentally friendly. I am not even certain about the use of crop waste, since I have recently heard of examples of that being ploughed back into the soil, to increase fertility and reduce the need for artificial fertilisers.
    If burning biomass results in more overall pollution, even while reducing CO2, then it should not be considered.
    What we need to do is reduce our demand for electricity rather than increase supply. Unfortunately technology appears to be going in the opposite direction.

  • Comment number 9.

    Go back in time to the stone and bronze ages when places like the Yorkshire moors were covered in trees. Our ancestors cleared all these. Why not replant them, will reduce our CO2 footprint [ does it matter? ] and then fell the wood to feed the power stations. Simples, or have I missed something?

  • Comment number 10.

    The amazing thing about these companies that as you say Paul are the biggest green house emitters in the country, way way the biggest in fact

    Is that instead of closing down the coal burners and replace with cleaner technology like gas or nuclear, which would easily allow the government to meet its emission reduction targets.................

    They are instead using taxation to try and make people change their consumption habits, which might or might not have any effect on emissions at all!

    Can anyone explain why this is?

  • Comment number 11.

    Old Gifford. Around 100 years ago, the tree covering was only 5% across the Uk, it is now 10% or more.

  • Comment number 12.

    Latest NASA prediction for SC24

    'The current prediction for Sunspot Cycle 24 gives a smoothed sunspot number maximum of about 63 in early 2013. We are currently over three years into Cycle 24. The current predicted size makes this the smallest sunspot cycle in about 100 years.'

    Interestingly the prediction for 10.7cm flux should be considered with the paper concerning UV influence on northern climate.

    'It seems that in years of low UV activity, unusually cold air forms over the tropics in the stratosphere, about 50km up. This is balanced by a greater easterly flow of air over the mid latitudes. The pattern spreads down to the surface, bringing easterly winds and cold winters to northern Europe.

    When solar UV output is higher than usual, the opposite occurs, with strong westerlies bringing warm air.'

  • Comment number 13.

    #11. - Sheffield_city wrote:
    "Old Gifford. Around 100 years ago, the tree covering was only 5% across the Uk, it is now 10% or more."
    That is true, but it does't contradict what Old Gifford said.
    He was talking about much further back than 100 years.
    It is true that growing trees and burning them in power stations would be a truly sustainable form of energy generation. I don't think that you would actually need to take any special measures to ensure that it would be carbon neutral, e.g. carbon capture, since burning wood is already carbon neutral. The problem is that burning wood might cause other forms of pollution which would not be acceptable.
    Also, there would probably be those who would object to the "destruction" of the Yorkshire moors by planting trees. It would certainly impact on the ecosystem which has been established on the moors.

  • Comment number 14.

    Ukpahaonta - fascinating stuff. Since 'certain weather forecasters' get a lot of stick on this blog for lack of skill, don't you think it's time we gave these scientists equal treatment?

    Look at this Hathaway group prediction from 2006 (link below)

    "Solar cycle 24, due to peak in 2010 or 2011 "looks like its going to be one of the most intense cycles since record-keeping began almost 400 years ago," says solar physicist David Hathaway of the Marshall Space Flight Center. He and colleague Robert Wilson presented this conclusion last week at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco . . . .
    According to their analysis, the next Solar Maximum should peak around 2010 with a sunspot number of 160 plus or minus 25. This would make it one of the strongest solar cycles of the past fifty years—which is to say, one of the strongest in recorded history."


    I think this is the third downward revision from Hathaway over the last couple of years. Perhaps those pesky barycentrics folk are onto something afterall?

  • Comment number 15.

    #12. - ukpahonta wrote:
    "The current prediction for Sunspot Cycle 24 gives a smoothed sunspot number maximum of about 63 in early 2013."
    My own figures suggest that we are only 2 years and 8 months into cycle 24.
    I am not sure how their smoothed sunspot number is arrived at, but my own estimate of the 12 month MA is 85, but not until late 2014, assuming that cycle 24 is exactly 11 years long. This is based on both the length and the average reached at the minimum point in cycle 23.
    This would make it the lowest cycle maximum since 1928.

  • Comment number 16.

    QV - I've read somewhere (maybe here?) that this cycle may be as long as 15 or even 17 years! Maybe someone else has seen this and can provide a link.
    Anyway, Ukpahonta's link describes Hathaway's updated methodology which has brought about this revised prediction.

  • Comment number 17.

    Just to clarify points raised re Sheffield EFW emissions in comments 4,6 and 7 .Incinerator emissions contain significant levels of NOX and fine particles. Fine particle levels are typically 30 times higher than equivalent gas , there is no minimum safe level of exposure so priority is to minimise creation. The NOX created by typical 150,000 tonne EFW plant is detailed at 370 tonnes per year, this equates to exhaust emissions from 231,000 additional diesel vehicles each travelling 20,000 km/yr.EURO5/6 vehicle emissions data details NOX at .08g/km.
    The air pollution is directly linked to COPD, Asthma, strokes, respiratory and cardiovascular problems. UK EFW and biomass plants create far higher levels of air pollution than Continental equivalents. Typical UK wood waste to energy plant details pollution volume of 20,000 cubic metres per tonne processed, average from German equivalent detailed at 4,200 cubic metres. Pollution concentration shown to be more than double German level so overall UK pollution nearly 10 times higher than Continental. Poses question are UK lives worth less than Continental lives? We are aware UK plant operators confirm they could reduce pollution impact but it would reduce efficiency. They are allowed to apply “economic” BAT and not the actual best available technique to minimise health and environmental impact.
    The external consequences of air quality degradation are quantified in UK energy report 2009 and we are aware the UK already suffers poor air quality and is under threat of severe EU fines.
    Embracing technology that deliberately degrades air quality appears to lack due diligence and duty of care. Rgds Brian Wilson

  • Comment number 18.

    My understanding from various sources is that the start and end of cycles is difficult to pin point until 2 or 3 years into the cycle.
    Hathaway's update moves the start further back by six months from what was generally stated as the start of SC24, don't know yet how others in the field are responding to this but he is definitely starting to fall in line, as far as the maximum is concerned.

    Don't care too much either about his previous predictions, science in action means updating your theory to match the data and I would hope that this gets the guy respect rather than retribution.

    The major point that should be taken from this area of science is that the Northern hemisphere will in all probability get more colder winters than milder ones in the coming decade.
    Add to that what the scientists are saying about the ocean cycles in negative mode and the trend of lower cloud cover then you are starting to get from multiple sources an inference of a period of cooling for us.

  • Comment number 19.

    To QV#8

    Regarding the environmentally friendly side of coppice and reedbed biomass.

    I base my comments on the fact that Britains richest and oldest woodlands usually have a long history of coppice management (sometimes well in excess of 1000 years).
    However, it seems extremely unlikely that the demands of modern biomass could be catered for this way- even if the wood could actually be harvested without causing devastation. Cutting by hand might be essential! However there is certainly scope here for domestic wood burning stoves.

    Reedbeds, to remain dominated by reeds actually do need to be cut. Otherwise they eventually become invaded by scrub, trees - like willow and alder - and gradually dry out. However once again, practicalities would be a problem. And you could get a much better price selling them for thatching, no doubt.

    Ploughing in crop waste does not necessarily reduce fertilise requirement. This is because bacteria in the soil use nitrogen as they digest the plants, thus competing with the new growing crop. In the longer term however, the N is recycled.

    Regarding other comments above about foresting the moors. You are right, it would devastate moorland ecology - arguably a much rarer resource than wood. And of course, all this has been done before - by the forestry commission. They have spent much of the last few decades restoring the damage!

  • Comment number 20.

    "Don't care too much either about his previous predictions, science in action means updating your theory to match the data and I would hope that this gets the guy respect rather than retribution."

    Well that just makes me look cheap! Thanks a bunch.
    Honestly though, to go from a prediction of one the strongest cycles in recorded history to one of the weakest is a miss of staggering proportions. The likes of Corbyn or Bastardi would be (and have been) vilified for this scale of inaccuracy. Whilst I'm not an apologist for either of them, I do get annoyed when such double standards are applied. As I understand it, the Hathaway group predictions are always updated, usually on an annual basis whereas Leif Svalgaard's method is determined by the strength of magnetic fields at polar reversal which limits the predictive period to one cycle. Vuk's method has little traction within the solar physicist's hierarchy but it seems to be performing quite well so far and has a much longer predictive range. Now it strikes me that the Hathaway group might consider looking outside of their close network for a little inspiration.

  • Comment number 21.


    I do appologise, that wasn't my intention.
    I would much rather that those associated with AR5 in assessing the current state of science took into account the updated views of scientists rather than relying on previous or ignoring them because they don't fit the political requirement.

    Those who change their perspective are an incentive for others to re-evaluate their position and hopefully will not receive vitriol from their colleagues as others have done in the past.

  • Comment number 22.

    I have just read an article om www.ey.com regarding this project and according to top financial advisor from Ernst&young this is going to have a negative impact on the biomass industry in the UK......How wrong are the suits at present we are do not have enough to go round here now and when the new sites in Sheffield and Lutterworth come on line we will have to start the importing of raw material .Hardly CO2 friendly.We have shelved projects to produce wood pellets in the UK because of lack of raw material

  • Comment number 23.

    Biomass is not the smartest energy producer. It is of low calorific value and density, compared to fossil fuels, so a lot more is needed to produce the same Mw of electricity. There is also another problem that Tilbury Power Station has discovered when 4000tons of wood chips spontaneously combusted. It is still burning and the Fire Services claim that such a fire is a nightmare to put out.

    Transport of this light biomass, using fossil fueled lorries, is costly and carbon intensive given the long transport routes from growing areas which are mainly overseas. So if the intention of using biomass is to save the planet then the policy has failured.

  • Comment number 24.

    The whole energy policy of this and past governments is a total shambles. The proposed reduction of our carbon footprint by more than any other country is unattainable unless we are willing to accept a much lower standard of living, frequent power cuts and brownouts, much higher fuel costs etc.. All the policies are founded on poor to non existent science and belief in a UN organisation that has been proved to falsify data and rewrite the conclusions of their own scientists so as to increase the alarmist message without any scientific backup. Policies have been organised round model output that has been shown to be wrong.

    The bedrock theory that is banded about by one and all is the Theory of Greenhouse Gasses. It has been shown to be wrong so many times but still believed. The latest research measuring the radiated heat from Earth shows that it remains the same as in 1975 when measurements started. According to the beloved theory this should have fallen with the rise of atmospheric CO2 since these measurements started. The theory predicts a temperature anomaly in the mid to high troposphere. None has ever been found. The mechanism that permits the flow of heat from a cool higher troposphere to a warmer surface, this violating the 2nd law of thermodynamics, has not been produced or proved by observation.

    Despite all these problems we have successive governments who wish to live in wonderland whilst we, the taxpayer, foot the ever expanding cost of impossibility.

  • Comment number 25.

    The obvious answer to all this waste is put into active volcanos! Let the intense heat vapourise it......

  • Comment number 26.

    I see that coincidentally there has been a fire at the UK's largest Biomass power station at Tilbury:
    Apparently FOE isn't keen on these power stations.


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