Drax announces ambition to host world’s largest negative emissions project

Drax first began capturing emissions from its biomass operations in Selby (pictured) in 2019

The two companies first began working together last summer as part of a pilot project for one of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ (MHI) carbon capture and storage (CCS) solutions. As that trial comes to an end, a long-term contract has been signed giving Drax licence to use MHI’s latest carbon capture solvent, KS-21, at its power plant in Selby, North Yorkshire. KS-21 was used in the trial along with another solvent called KS-1.

Also included in the new agreement is a commitment for MHI to locate its core CCS team at the company’s European headquarters in London. The team will be obliged to consider new supply chain partners to produce key solvents in the UK and to assess the possibility of creating new additional employment locations in the UK, at Drax facilities or elsewhere.

Drax claims it is already hosting the largest decarbonisation project in Europe. It has converted all coal-fired power generation at the Selby plant to biomass, in a move it estimates has reduced annual emissions by 85%. It is now working to neutralise the remaining emissions by scaling up onsite CCS technologies and is preparing for at least one of the plant’s units to reach carbon neutrality with bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) by 2027. From there, it hopes to become a ‘carbon negative’ company by 2030.  

Carbon captured at the Drax plant will be stored using geological systems in the North Sea. The firm’s chief executive Will Gardiner has called this a “permanent” removal solution.

Commenting on the new contract with MHI, Gardiner added: “The world urgently needs to move from making climate pledges to taking climate action. This game-changing contract between Drax and MHI could contribute to a decade of global environmental leadership from the UK and provide further stimulus to a post-Covid-19 economic recovery.”

Earlier this month, Drax partnered with US engineering giant Bechtel. Bechtel will help Drax optimise and measure the impact of CCS at its Selby plant and the partners will also explore where new plants could be built across North America and Europe.

Pros and cons

In its recommendations to the UK Government on achieving a net-zero national economy by 2050, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) concluded that current technological solutions and stronger policy frameworks could enable the UK to reduce emissions by around 97% against a 1990 baseline.

The remaining 3% could be achieved by the scale-up of CCS solutions and hydrogen energy technology – both listed as a “necessity, not an option”.

A more recent report, from trade body the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology (REA), states that the UK is a world leader on coal-to-biomass conversions and that, when paired with CCS, biomass is compatible with a net-zero energy sector. 

But BECCS has not been without its controversies. In 2019, plaintiffs from six countries filed a lawsuit with the European General Court in Luxembourg, claiming that forest-grown wood shouldn’t be counted as a source of renewable energy under the EU’s 2018 Renewable Energy Directive (RED) II. In response, Drax produced a sustainable biomass strategy aimed at removing deforestation from its pellet supply chains but continues to face pressure from organisations including Cut Carbon Not Forests and Ember to include emissions from importing biomass in its emissions accounting.

Ember has also argued that BECCS is more expensive than other low-carbon solutions. In a report out last month, the think tank claimed that the Drax project would add some £16 per year to the average UK household’s energy bill. This calculation is based on Drax receiving £31.7bn in subsidies.

Building on that Ember report, the Natural Resources Defence Council and Axe Drax have this week accused Drax of accepting government subsidies for “highly polluting” processes involved with biomass pellet manufacture and burning. They claim the firm received £5bn in subsidies between 2010 and 2020 and that it is likely to receive a further £5bn by 2027. The two groups have also called the company “hypocritical” for investing in three new wood pellet mills in Arkansas while cutting more than 200 jobs in the UK.

Beyond just Drax, Chatham House’s energy, environment and resources department is warning that the Conservative Government’s plans for reaching net-zero are over-reliant on both biomass and CCS, when technologies that are already mature and proven as sustainable should be prioritised.

Sarah George

Comments (1)

  1. Lawrence Rose says:

    It’s rather disappointing that whoever put together the "pros and cons" didn’t look at the CCC reports in more detail.

    For example, in their Land Use Policies for a Net Zero UK they say we require "a high uptake of low carbon farming practices and releasing 22% of land out of traditional agricultural production for long-term carbon sequestration".

    Doesn’t that sound like quite a "con" to you – or is it just a challenge?

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