At its simplest, Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) sounds like the go-to climate solution: convert your coal or gas-fired power station to burn biomass. Source that biomass from fast-growing ‘sustainable forests’, with as many new carbon-sequestering trees planted as are cut down – or, better yet, from waste products from timber and timber mills. Upgrade your boilers so they’re super-efficient. And then capture all the CO2 from the flue gases before it’s released into the atmosphere. Compress, liquefy and store away that CO2 in exhausted oil and gas reservoirs, as near to the power station as possible – job done!

And that’s what’s happening at Drax. Part reality – in that one of Europe’s largest coal-fired power stations is now the UK’s largest single site renewable electricity generator, burning wood pellets imported primarily from the USA, providing energy for around four million homes. And part future ambition, as it sets out to persuade the Government and many critical NGOs and academics that Drax is the best possible place to commit to a commercial-scale CCS investment on two of its four biomass boilers. Earlier in the year it applied for a Development Consent Order with an expectation that the first unit could be fully operational in 2027.

The Government is dead keen on CCS in general (as explored in two earlier blogs) and on BECCS in particular. So is the Committee on Climate Change. So is the International Energy Agency. So is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. So is every major oil and gas company in the world, as well as a number of huge engineering conglomerates including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Bechtel, with whom Drax is now in partnership.

According to Drax’s CEO, Will Gardiner, the idea is for Drax to be not just carbon neutral by 2030, or even zero carbon, but ‘carbon negative’. Whatever else may be going on here, you’ve got to admire that ambition.

Unfortunately for Will Gardiner (and his eager investors) the majority of NGOs are lined up against him on a scale of 1 (‘the jury still out on all this stuff’) to 10 (with BECCS characterised as a massive mistake, and indeed as another example of grotesque predatory delay). As you might imagine, it’s complicated! But ‘the case against’ rests on two main arguments:

  1. All the life cycle data used by Drax to calculate the carbon footprint of BECCS is, according to its critics, either inherently flawed or far too narrow in scope – for instance, not including emissions from the original harvesting of the timber, or not taking into account the time lag between mature, carbon-rich trees being cut down and the growth of newly-planted trees that can only sequester CO2 relatively slowly.
  2. To deliver that ‘carbon-negative’ outcome will demand a huge amount of taxpayers’ subsidy. According to one analysis (from a think tank called Ember), around £30bn of subsidy will be required over a 25-year period to make the economics work, adding £16 to the average annual energy bill and making it an even more expensive proposition than Hinkley Point – which, as readers of this blog will know, is the most outrageously wasteful use of taxpayers’ money ever seen in the energy sector anywhere in the world.

On both counts, Drax has come out fighting, challenging the basis on which these arguments are being advanced, and suggesting that organisations like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have pretty much lost the plot in terms of arguing that there’s no role for using biomass at scale for energy, and that literally everything can be sorted out by a combination of renewables, storage, energy efficiency, smart grids and so on.

Personally, I’m not sure this stand-off makes much sense – and I certainly don’t believe there’s any kind of PREDATORY DELAY at work here as far as Drax is concerned. It’s absolutely inevitable that biomass will continue to be put to use for energy purposes – in all sorts of different ways. Getting that right in terms of constraints, standards, certifications, corporate accountability and so on, especially regarding any CCS elements, is going to be increasingly important.