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Drax, Biomass and the politics of renewables

Biomass, of all the renewable energy sources, has had a difficult year.drax power logo

Firstly, the rising controversy over the source of the wood being used for energy production.

Secondly the on-going reliance on North American pellets and their associated transportation costs.

And thirdly the UK government’s controversial decision to drop a promised Contract for Difference (CFD) subsidy award for Drax’s biomass conversion from the first round of funding in 2014 followed by an unseemly legal battle between the two parties.

As Europe’s largest coal fired power station providing 7% of the UKs energy, Drax plays an important in the energy market.

Their prescient vision to transform some of the existing coal units to a renewable plant and to become a flagship for biomass technology was originally the subject to governmental support however over recent months that policy, and the vision that Drax Chief Executive Dorothy Thompson has had has seemed under threat.

The government view

But Thompson, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph has explained that any change in government mind-set is a financial expedient one not an indictment on the technology or processes involved in biomass generation.

Thompson told the Telegraph:

“I think what you’re seeing between biomass, wind and other technologies is the Government working out how you fit that into budget control.”


With regards the controversy over the sources of the biomass material, Thompson has countered:

“Burning trees is fairly old. Burning trees for electricity somehow in people’s minds seems different. We only burn trees from forests that are continuously grown. And it’s kind of obvious … why would I burn trees from a forest that’s being depleted? I wouldn’t have a business after a while. We …burn forest fibre – we don’t really burn trees.”


On the environmental impact of transporting the wood pellets from the US and Canada, Thompson is equally unequivocal comparing this to the situation with coal plant and the necessity to source fuel from Latin America and Russia due to the uneconomic operating conditions of UK Coal. Indeed on a relative basis Thompson believes that biomass saves 80% on transportation emissions alone:

“Whilst we transport it from a long distance. We have to show that the energy used in that process is small.”

On emissions Thompson explained:

“The big problem facing Drax and the UK was the level of carbon emission from coal stations. Being the largest coal station in Western Europe, as a site we were the largest carbon emitter in the UK. We thought … we have to do something about our carbon emissions.”

Thompson admitted:

“At the time we took what felt was a very brave decision. We built this facility so we could burn 15% biomass across the whole station. To think we deliver 7% of the UK’s power, to suddenly go to 15% biomass.

“People said, ‘you’re going to have a massive drop in capacity and a significant drop in efficiency, why would you do this?’ But actually we’re delivering very good performance now”

The future

About the future of UK energy policy and the role biomass can be expected to play Thompson feels sure that the government has not lost faith in the technology:

“I would say that’s not the case. And I say it with confidence as we meet regularly both with the political side and with the officials. What I would say is that Government took time to understand … the complications.

“I think the Government is using biomass as a transitional technology. We hope that will change, and it will be a longer transition. Biomass is supported through to 2027, but not at present thereafter.”

“We’ve always said it [biomass] is a good complement to wind, and it’s very obvious why it’s a complement as we’re reliable and flexible, whereas wind is intermittent.

“[However] It’s not so obvious that part of the reason it’s [wind is] a complement is that it lowers the total cost.”

Indeed so convinced are Drax of the long term value that biomass generation can bring to UK energy policy that they have sponsored a report from Frontier Economics that compares biomass technology to wind energy.

The report claims that the overall biomass conversion units could deliver total savings to the UK of between £2.5bn and £3.4bn against the equivalent offshore wind generation.

UK energy policy

The cost of current energy policy and its implication for energy security however remains a concern for Thompson who believes that the current imbalance in capacity margin is matched by the imbalance in costs. Thompson said:

“I’m not necessarily sure that the end-consumer costs aren’t right. It might be the cost of what we have chosen to do – a well-connected grid, a low carbon strategy, investing in security of supply. There are lots of things that we as consumers choose but don’t consciously know we’re choosing it, that we have the benefit of but don’t know that it’s there.

“If you look at Germany, or the US, or Italy, there are lots of countries whose energy costs for the household are much higher than we pay in the UK.

“My concern is that at the moment a large part of our electricity generators are simply not making any money. And what happens when you run a large facility and are not making any money is that you start to become very, very careful about what you spend on maintenance.”

Thompson position is therefore pretty clear; the current retail price of energy is insufficient to close the capacity gap, to prompt new investment and to increase the levels of maintenance on the network. In other words the cost of energy to the end user is too low to deliver the market envisaged.

Those thoughts will be unpalatable for most people but Thompson is in the ideal position as having direct experience of the move to renewable technology and the politicised commercial environment therein to know exactly what she’s talking about.

If we want a more efficient, more secure and greener energy market, we need to start being prepared to pay for it.