Drax receives green light to complete biomass conversion project

UK power station operator Drax has been approved subsidies to run the third of its six coal-fired units on wood pellet fuel, but green campaigners question whether the state aid could have been better employed to help drive the UK towards a low-carbon economy.

Having started its upgrade process in July 2015, the third unit of its coal power station in North Yorkshire was yesterday (19 December) given approval by the European Commission (EC) and additional funding to complete its biomass conversion. It is estimated the power station will receive more than £1bn in public finance over the next 10 years.

Drax Power chief executive Andy Koss said: “We have demonstrated how to reinvent a coal-fired power station, using an existing asset, so there are no hidden costs to the Grid and it is quick to achieve. This is a testament to the expertise and ingenuity of our engineering team and everyone at the power station.”

“The energy challenge facing the UK is how to replace the contribution currently made by coal. Biomass technology is proven, ready to go and ideally placed to help the country transform to a low carbon future with reliable, secure and affordable renewable power.”

Drax first announced its conversion plans in 2012, and the two other units were previously upgraded in 2013 and 2014. The conversion project represents the largest decarbonisation project in Europe and Britian’s largest renewable power generator – estimated to cost between £650-£700m.

The successful conversion of all three units will look to cut 12mtCO2e per year from the power stations operations. The approval for the third unit conversion was given in the context of the Government’s push to end coal-fired generation by 2025 and promote clean energy generation.

Drax believes that with support from the Government, the company could upgrade the remainder of the power station to run solely on biomass and provide up to 8% of the UK’s total electricity from sustainable sources.


In response to the announcement, environmental law organisation Client Earth contended that the long-term public funding could be better spent by the UK Government on other clean energy innovations.

ClientEarth energy transition lawyer Susan Shaw said: “It’s projected that a mammoth £1.3bn in public money will be funnelled into this project over the next 10 years and we must question whether that money could be better spent by the UK Government on more sustainable modes of energy provision and management, like efficiency measures, demand response technologies, battery storage, and lower-carbon technologies.

“Big environmental question marks continue to loom over biomass and whether it is in fact renewable on this scale. Biomass has been classified indiscriminately as a ‘zero carbon’ energy source but this stems from flaws in the way the EU and US account for carbon. Neither the UK nor EU intend to address these questions until 2020 at the earliest.

“With these subsidies, the Government is paying for damaging infrastructural lock-in that will last for many years to come.”

Additionally, ClientEarth expresses concern about the lack of transparency in Government state aid decisions and the potential “significant” effects the reliance on commercially confidential industry reports can have on the environment.

The third unit conversion approval comes off the back of Drax’s announcement to build four rapid response gas power stations that will be able to run at full capacity within 10 minutes of being activated. The open cycle gas turbines (OCGT) will look to “plug the gaps” of intermittent renewables and help transition away from a coal-dominated UK energy sector.

Alex Baldwin

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