Drax submits plans for major carbon capture project at Selby power station

Image: Drax

The energy giant confirmed it had submitted the plans for the project, in which it is investing £2bn this decade, on Tuesday afternoon (12 July). The project requires a Development Consent Order from the Government’s Planning Inspectorate, as it is classified as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project.  The Inspectorate’s website lists the application as accepted and in the pre-examination process.

In making the announcement, Drax stated that it intends to bring one BECCS unit online in 2024 at the earliest and to add the second by 2030. Both units, when fully operational, would have a combined carbon capture capacity of at least eight million tonnes per year. ClientEarth estimates that Drax’s Selby plant generated 15.1 million tonnes of CO2e in 2019, for context.

Drax is in the process of converting its power plant at Selby from coal to biomass. The plant has six boilers, four of which have already been switched to biomass. The other two will remain available for coal generation until March 2023 – the end-date was meant to be September 2022, but Drax agreed to extend coal operations on the request of the Government amid the energy crisis.

Carbon claims

Drax claims that it can become a ‘carbon-negative’ company by 2030 with BECCS playing a major role in helping the firm to capture, sequester and offset more carbon than it generates. By 2027, the firm is hoping to confirm that one unit at the plant is operating on a carbon-neutral basis using BECCS. It already posts generation-related emissions 90% lower than when Selby was coal-only.

“Drax’s BECCS project provides the UK with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to kickstart a whole new sector of the economy and lead the world in a vital green technology needed to address the climate crisis,” said the firm’s chief executive Will Gardiner.

“BECCS at Drax will not only permanently remove millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year, but it will also generate the reliable, renewable power this country needs.”

Some green campaigners continue to question whether Drax is properly accounting for the life-cycle emissions of its biomass feedstocks in making its carbon claims – and whether BECCS is really a “vital” component of the UK’s net-zero transition.

Drax’s use of the word ‘renewable’ to describe electricity made from burning wood has also been a point of contention.  December 2021 saw Citi downgrading Drax, because it does “not fundamentally see biomass as a sustainable source of energy.” Additionally, S&P Global removed Drax from its Clean Energy Index late last year.

The UK’s Climate Change Committee has stated that using CCS to some extent is a “necessity, not an option” for reaching net-zero by 2050. But it has estimated that, at most, CCS could address 3% of the nation’s emissions in 2030. This means that emissions reduction should be prioritised first and foremost, especially given that most CCS technologies are in their relative infancy on a commercial scale.

Regarding BECCS specifically, groups like Ember and Cut Carbon Not Forests have pointed to research suggesting that BECCS cannot capture the emissions associated with the international wood pellet supply chain. Other opponents of BECCS on these grounds include Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Wildlife Trusts. Drax maintains that its wood pellet supply chain, which is largely concentrated in the US, uses sustainable sourcing methods and that it includes value chain emissions in emissions accounting.

Drax first began capturing CO2 from its biomass processes in Selby, Yorkshire, in February 2019. The first emissions capture at the site was enabled by technology from C-Capture. Drax subsequently began using CCS technologies from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and, more recently, from Promethian Particles.

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