Legally binding environmental targets have made energy businesses across the UK think innovatively about how to ensure their practices are environmentally sustainable and at the same time continue to deliver on core business objectives and meet customer needs. All businesses in the energy sector now have an important part to play in helping the UK meet its carbon emissions reduction targets, through implementing more robust policies and supporting environmental initiatives.
As the largest power station in the UK responsible for meeting 7–8% of the UK’s electricity demand, Drax Power Station plays a unique part in this story. For power station owner, Drax Group (Drax), the scale and strategic importance of this asset to the UK has meant significant change to the Drax business in response to emissions and sustainability targets whilst delivering a reliable supply of electricity.
Drax has been innovating to reduce its environmental impact since the eighties, when acid rain was the big environmental issue. But since 2003 and the focus on climate change, Drax has been working to phase out the amount of fossil fuel burnt at its power station. In 2012, the Company took an industry-leading decision to transform the business into a predominantly biomass-fuelled generator through fully converting three of the power station’s six generating units to burn renewable sustainable biomass.
Biomass is organic material obtained from living or recently living plant matter that can be burnt to produce energy. The materials that Drax uses include low grade wood, such as forest thinnings, tree tops and branches as well as sawmill residues, and to a lesser extent residual agricultural products, such as straw, sunflower seed husks and peanut husks, and purpose grown energy crops.
Drax’s biomass conversion has been a significant undertaking in terms of scale and engineering complexity. It is Europe’s biggest single decarbonisation project and once complete will turn Drax Power Station into the UK’s largest renewable generating plant.
By using sustainable biomass, carbon emissions will be reduced by over 80% compared to coal. This will reduce Drax’s carbon emissions by around 12 million tonnes a year by the time its third unit is converted in or before 2016 – the equivalent of making Luxembourg zero carbon by that date.
In its first year of operation the carbon savings from its first converted unit alone accounted for almost a fifth of the UK energy sector’s total decarbonisation efforts during the same period.
Given its scale and national strategic importance, Drax has a unique role to play in the UK’s efforts to meet environmental targets. Biomass conversion, underpinned by a robust sustainability policy, has meant that Drax continues to meet the UK’s electricity demand in a way that is low carbon, cost effective and reliable.
Dorothy Thompson is the Chief Executive of Drax Group