Drax power station near York: there is a way to turn it green. Photograph: StaraBlazkova on Wikipedia
Can Drax power station become eco-friendly? Not by burning biomass argues Geoff Beacon. But in his latest Green Piece, he proposes a long-term solution


Two BBC reports, Drax power station to burn wood and biomass and Biomass may hinder climate fight, seem to contradict each other. The first implies Drax, our enormous local power station, is going green by burning more biomass. The second implies that burning biomass is worse than burning coal. Surely some mistake.

The “biomass is bad” piece references a report by the RSPB, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth which says

[Delivering genuine greenhouse gas emissions is] now being undermined by Government’s proposals to continue to subsidise large-scale power generation from wood.

The report cites work by Timothy Searchinger that argues that burning whole trees is 80 per cent worse than burning coal whan measured over a 20 year period, partly because 20 years is not nearly long enough to regrow the trees.

One of the videos accompanying the BBC reports shows piles of elephant grass and coppiced willow, which is very different to pulping whole trees that could be used to build homes and store carbon for a hundred years or more.

This has prompted me to dust off my proposals for Drax: Grow willow coppice in and near Yorkshire and capture the carbon dioxide to store under the North Sea. Willow coppice is usually cropped every two years so doesn’t pay Professor Searchinger’s whole tree penalty.

Can Yorkshire can save the climate?

There is a new Government competition to fund carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects and Drax is on the shortlist. Actually Drax is more than local – it provides about seven per cent of the United Kingdom’s electricity supply.

Although Drax now takes a proportion of its fuel from renewable sources, it uses some nine million tonnes of coal each year and produces about 21 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – about half a tonne for eveybody in the UK. On CCS, Wikipedia says

Carbon capture and storage (CCS), refers to technology attempting to prevent the release of large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere from fossil fuel use in power generation and other industries by capturing CO2, transporting it and ultimately, pumping it into underground geologic formations to securely store it away from the atmosphere.

Government interest in CCS is not new. In 2007, I cornered John Hutton, then Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, to tell him I was disappointed that the Government did not manage to push through the CCS plant BP was planning in Peterhead in Scotland.

I also told him that Phil Willis, then MP for Harrogate, was very frustrated that it has not gone ahead because China was completing several coal fired stations each month and a Chinese minister had told him “When you do [carbon capture], we’ll do it.” Five years later is the Government now serious?

Drax has been burning some biomass such as coppiced willow to save on carbon dioxide emissions to become greener. But it could become the greenest machine in the world if it were to have full CCS and it were fully fueled with biomass. Grow willow or elephant grass, burn it for power at Drax, capture the carbon dioxide and store it in porous rocks under the North Sea.

Instead of emitting 21 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, Drax would be taking 21 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s an improvement of about one tonne per UK citizen.

This can be a large scheme. There are nearly about 1.2 million hectares of land that hasn’t been built up within a two-hour drive time of Drax. That could grow 12 million tonnes of willow producing about nine million tonnes of bio-coal. That’s enough to fuel Drax completely with bio-coal.

If ninety per cent of the carbon dioxide from burning nine million tonnes of bio-coal were captured and stored, there would be 21 million tonnes a year of carbon dioxide safely stored under the North Sea.

Instead of emitting 21 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, Drax would be taking 21 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s an improvement of about one tonne per UK citizen.

Two tonnes per citizen per year is the UK Government’s target for the year 2050. Let’s hope they see the possibilities and give Drax the cash.