Drax facing legal action over plans for large-scale gas turbine project

Power company Drax is facing legal action over plans to open a four-turbine gas generation facility at its Selby power plant in Yorkshire, with environmental law firm ClientEarth claiming that the project breaches the Government's planning and climate change policies.

Drax recently applied for planning permission to convert two coal-fired units at the plant into four combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs) in a bid to increase the facility’s generation capacity – a move it claims will help it to stop using coal by 2023.

However, ClientEarth has submitted a written objection claiming that the project, called Repower, would “risk locking in high-carbon energy onto the grid until 2050” and “significantly” increase Drax’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The law firm, which is known for having taken the UK Government to court over its air quality policies, claims that the approval of Drax’s plans would push the total amount of extra gas capacity installed in the UK since 2017 to 18GW. It claims that since the Government recommended that just 6GW of new gas generation projects should be brought online by 2035, 15GW has already been added by other energy companies.

“Approving this new gas capacity risks either throwing the UK’s decarbonisation off course or locking in redundant infrastructure resulting in significant environmental impacts and costs to the taxpayer,” ClientEarth’s climate accountability lawyer Sam Hunter-Jones said.

“If major energy projects – such as this from Drax – are granted planning consent, the UK will risk carbon lock-in that would seriously undermine its ability to meet its climate change commitments.”

In its objection, ClientEarth additionally cites the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) 2016 recommendation that the UK grid should be free from gas by 2030, if the UK is to meet its Paris Agreement targets.

The law firm has recommended that Drax invest in further carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects as an alternative to the gas turbines, after the company  introduced the first bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) project in Europe earlier this year.

“The only way this project can survive the future is with carbon capture and storage – a technology that is not economically viable and one not expected to be soon enough to meet the UK’s carbon targets, if at all,” Hunter-Jones added.

Drax’s shift away from coal

Drax’s chief executive Andy Koss has defended the plans for Selby power plant, raising concerns that ClientEarth may have misinterpreted the CCC’s 2016 power sector analysis for the Fifth Carbon Budget.

“Even if low-carbon generation could cost-effectively meet the entire generation gap in the 2020s, it is likely to require supporting deployment of flexible gas plants,” the CCC document states.

“How much capacity is needed will depend on the shape of demand, the mix of low-carbon capacity and the success with expanding flexibility from demand-side response, interconnectors and storage.”

Koss said the project will “deliver cost-effective, high efficiency, flexible gas power to the grid”, claiming that Drax’s decision to convert its coal-fired cylinders would reduce its overall GHG footprint.

“By reusing some of our existing infrastructure, including the grid connection and cooling towers, the development will be cost effective and very competitive,” Koss said.

“It could also enable us to stop using coal as soon as 2023, well ahead of the government’s 2025 deadline, reducing our emissions whilst playing a vital role in supporting the system as more renewables come online.”

Koss noted that while the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report outlines the need for CCS in limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5C, it relies on scenarios where at least 15% of power generation is achieved through non-renewable sources in 2050.

Sarah George

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