Back to newsroom

The Times: Drax bets £700m on replacing coal with wood


The chief executive of the coal power station that generates about 7 per cent of Britain’s electricity is speculating about the global demand for wooden chests of drawers. It is not, Dorothy Thompson admits, a subject that she has spent much time pondering — until now.

Drax intends to transform itself into the country’s biggest green power generator by burning millions of tonnes of wood each year, instead of coal. Its £700 million biomass conversion plan involves importing huge quantities of wood from forests in the United States, Europe and Africa to its sprawling site in North Yorkshire.

It also finds itself in the unusual position of competing with businesses from construction to furniture makers for the country’s newest energy source.

There is, Ms Thompson believes, plenty of cheap wood for everyone: “You can’t assume there is going to be massive demand for chests of drawers. Every time we look for it, we find more biomass.”

But dealing with biomass is not without risk. In February last year wood chips caught fire at RWE npower’s plant at Tilbury in Essex. It took 100 firefighters to put out the blaze.

Standing inside one of the huge, inflatable dome-shaped silos being built to store dried wood chips, Andy Priestley, a construction manager, admits: “It can be a tinder box if the material is not treated properly. It’s quite volatile.” Water sprinklers line the underground conveyor belt that transports the wood chips when they are unloaded from converted freight trains to the silos.

Initially Drax will convert half of its six boilers to burn 100 per cent biomass by 2016. The first unit will be ready in April, earlier than expected.

Burning biomass matter such as wood instead of coal will, it is hoped, reduce carbon emissions at a fraction of the cost of using offshore wind. Yet the company has no choice but to turn its back on coal. In April, a carbon tax is being introduced that eventually will put coal plants such Drax — which emits twice as much carbon as gas plants — out of business. Burning biomass, which is three times more expensive as coal, will earn generous subsidies, funded by levies on consumers’ bills.

Drax will import more than 90 per cent of the 7.3 million tonnes of biomass it will need every year because there is not enough in Britain. Most of this will come from commercially managed forests in the US, where it is building two plants that will turn the wood into pellets for export to Britain.

The company deploys dizzying arguments to support the idea that biomass is truly green. It says that the tree would release the carbon it has absorbed during its lifetime when it dies, even though this may be decades in the future, so it might as well be burnt now to generate energy. Ms Thompson insists that in general the company will take thinnings, or small trees, because they grow back quickly, enabling the carbon to be re-absorbed sooner. Offcuts that the timber industry would not use, and diseased trees, are also favoured.

Environmentalists such Friends of the Earth argue that biomass will increase pressure on land. A report co-authored by the group claimed that it would take 100 years after a tree was burnt for the emissions to be reabsorbed and become “carbon neutral”.

David Kennedy, the Government’s climate change adviser, recommends that no more than 10 per cent of Britain’s electricity should come from biomass.

Ms Thompson admits that biomass is “still in its infancy”, but “once you convert the boilers to biomass, it’s very expensive to put them back”.