11th March 2013 | Posted by: Daniel Birkett | Industry News

One of the largest and most efficiently-run coal-fired power stations in the world is set for a huge makeover, fuelling the move towards renewable energy. The move comes alongside plans for the introduction of a carbon tax - which will, in time, make burning coal for electricity generation too expensive for power companies to afford compared to other (renewable) fuels. An article published over the weekend in the Daily Mail focuses on Drax power station, and its proposed move away from coal-fired power to biomass. The power station burns approximately 36,000 tons of coal every day and supplies 7% of all electricity used in Britain - which is enough to light up a number of our largest cities. However, a change in Government policy (prompted by EU rules), has brought about a huge period of change for Drax. The station is set to undergo one of the biggest overhauls in energy production the country has ever seen; one that, as the article states, 'would astonish those who built it in the Seventies and Eighties'.

The change

From next month, the power station will begin a £700m change - moving away from burning coal (its original fuel) to burning millions of tons of wood chips per year instead. The majority of these wood chips will be shipped 3,000 miles across the Atlantic to Britain, and will come from 4,600 square miles of forest in the US. But why the sudden change? Well, Drax power station has become a 'key component' in the 'green revolution', which now sits at the centre of the Government's energy policy. What's more (and possibly more importantly) Drax is currently the largest single emitter of carbon dioxide in Britain. By switching to wood chips - 'biomass', as it is known - over time, Drax will save millions of tons of CO2 from ever entering the atmosphere; thus helping to limit the progress of climate change.

What is biomass?

Biomass, unlike coal, is considered 'sustainable', because it only returns back to the atmosphere the amount of carbon dioxide it withdrew from the air while the original tree was growing. However, whilst coal is seen as a 'planet-threatening pollutant', it is still the cheapest means of generating electricity - much cheaper, in fact, than biomass. The Government is now so committed to reaching its targets for reducing the country's carbon emissions that it is tackling the problem head on - in two ways.

The two-pronged attack - what will change?

The first change will involve the introduction of a carbon tax in around three weeks' time, which will make burning fossil fuels so expensive that it will eventually become 'prohibitive for power companies to use them'. The tax will be applied to every ton of CO2 produced during the generation of electricity. It will start at relatively low levels, but rise considerably year-on-year so that within two decades the cost of generating electricity from coal will no longer be economical. The second change, which is designed to boost the 'carbon neutral' methods of power generation (currently the most expensive ones) - will involve the introduction of subsidies, paid for by households and businesses through electricity bills, to help stimulate growth in the green sector.


The change at Drax has in fact been in the pipeline for some time. Last year, Government ministers agreed to offer any coal-fired power station which switched to biomass the same, almost 100% renewable subsidy, that if offers to owners of onshore wind farms. When the numbers were totalled up, the board at Drax saw that if they stayed with coal, they would eventually be priced out of business by the up-coming carbon tax. However, with all things considered, for the power station to generate the same amount of power from wood that it does from coal, it would cost between two and three times as much. The only thing that would make this economically viable would be the aforementioned renewable subsidy - which will eventually be worth more than £1bn per year.

A threat to energy bills

Electricity users have already been experiencing a period of gradual rise in the cost of their bills, and this could continue with vast subsidies going to Drax. As mentioned earlier, these subsidies will be funded through levies on households' and businesses' bills. Original press release from Drax Power:  http://www.draxgroup.plc.uk/media/press_releases/?id=199368