On January 16th, the UK Government announced the official development consent granted to Drax to build its carbon capture and storage project. Drax’s carbon capture and storage project application was approved by the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero.
The application was submitted to the Planning Inspectorate by Drax Power Limited on 23 May 2022 and was accepted for Examination on 20 June 2022. It includes the construction and operation of carbon capture technology and associated equipment in the UK, and the integration of the units into the existing Common Services at Drax Power Station.
Drax carbon capture plan includes installing the technology to two of its four in total biomass fired units. The captured CO2 should be stored offshore in geological storage under the seabed. According to Drax, the CCS project will generate 8 million tons of ‘negative emissions’ annually, with the ultimate goal of adding carbon capture to all of its capacity.
The company received more than £800m in government subsidies and tax breaks last year to support its conversion from coal to biomass burning. The go-ahead carbon capture project is also expected to cost around £40 billion to energy bill payers or over £1.6 billion a year over the next 25 years. According to analysts, Drax’s BECCS initiative has become one of world’s most expensive energy projects, defined as extremely costly with environmental benefits under question.
The use of wood instead of coal enabled Drax to claim green energy subsidies through Renewable Obligation Certificates or ROCs which means the company gets around £51 per megawatt hour. Earlier this week, as reported by the Telegraph, three Tory MPs criticized plans for the government to continue with the Drax subsidies as they argue that the clear-cutting of forests in North America destroys the environment.
Questions and criticism have been raised multiple times over the last few years from environmental organizations, think tanks and other groups that the company is not using only sustainably sourced biomass. Many are also opposing schemes in general involving burning biomass for energy generation saying they should not be classified as renewable energy. Biomass usually takes a couple of years or decades to completely decay if left in the environment. The emissions stored in it while growing are being released back in the atmosphere which increases the amount of CO2 in the near term.
Apart from the high combustion emissions, the company sources its pellets from countries like US South, Canada, Europe, Brazil and Russia where some parts of managed forests are associated with “uncertainties and poor practices”. The biomass is also transported via ships which results in a substantial operational carbon footprint.
The company has also been accused by groups of removing forests from other countries and destroying precious habitats, to which accusations Drax replied by saying it ensures the forests that it extracts biomass from, are being replanted.
Given evidence such as the harm to the environment by burning forest biomass and the questions over the integrity of the sourced pellets, some MPs are arguing whether Drax’s ROCs, due to expire in 2027, are justified and should receive support.
“There are serious questions about whether burning wood pellets for energy is truly sustainable and whether the increase in consumers’ energy bills is justified… Until those questions can be satisfactorily answered, many conservatives will rightly ask whether agreeing to billions of pounds more in subsidies represents value for money,” said Selaine Saxby MP in an attempt to block funding for Drax’s CCS project.
“There are questions over the sustainability of imported wood pellets and increased competing demand for home-sourced timber and waste wood. So the Government should apply strict criteria to ensure sustainability of biomass wood imports for energy generation,” added Philip Dunne MP.
“Our investment in this scheme could deliver up to 10,000 high-skilled jobs across the UK at the peak of the project’s construction, as well as safeguarding up to 7,000 direct and supply chain jobs,” said a spokesman for Drax as a response to the arguments.