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 the 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 William 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.
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 as oil and gas giants under growing pressure 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.