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| 08/13/15

UK coal giant aims to be first to achieve negative emissions


One of the United Kingdom’s largest coal power plants could be absorbing more carbon than it emits by the end of the decade, in the first commercial-scale bioenergy and carbon capture and storage (BECCS) operation in the world.

Since July, the Drax power station in central England has been producing half its power by burning biomass, according to a report in the New Scientist, part of a plan to wean the facility off coal. Starting in 2020, the plant also expects to pump the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the biomass combustion through a pipeline running to the floor of the North Sea, where it will be buried in saltwater aquifers well below the seafloor.

The shift to BECCS is part of an ambitious plan to convert the 70s-era facility into a “negative emissions” power plant. But the plan is not without its critics, some of whom say Drax is far from a net positive in fighting climate change.

Several pieces must fall into place for Drax to be truly carbon neutral, chief among them forestry management. The wood and other material burned in the biomass process is harvested from pine forests in the southern United States and processed into pellets for shipping. Demand for biomass products has created a forestry renaissance in the region, with pine forests covering hundreds of thousands of old cotton fields. As forests are cut, new trees are planted that offset the carbon emissions from those being burned.

Whether a balance can be struck between carbon emissions in one part of the world and carbon uptake in another is key. A spokesperson for the Dogwood Alliance, a North Carolina conservation group, told the New Scientist that plants such as Drax gobble up “naturally regenerated diverse pine forests,” replacing them with “uniform ranks of planted yellow pine.”

The other half of the equation, the CCS part, also has its doubters. The plant would follow in Canada’s footsteps. When Saskatchewan’s Boundary Dam coal plant became the first commercial power facility to bury carbon in October, critics pointed out that the process doesn’t entirely eliminate carbon emissions. The process’s commercial viability is also in question, with wary investors sending Drax shares plunging at the news of its costly CCS plan.

Since the spring of this year and the publication of a series of articles highlighting a largely unrecognized heavy dependence upon BECCS within a range of emissions mitigation scenarios, there has been a lively debate amongst climate scientists and policy makers surrounding the viability of the technology. Most low-carbon scenarios envisage the deployment of BECCS on the scale of adding a whole extra carbon sink to the carbon cycle that is equivalent to the annual carbon removal performed by the world’s oceans. Yet today, the Boundary Dam installation is the only commercial-scale CCS is in operation anywhere in the world. Moreover, the required scale of BECCS uptake would also displace 0.5 billion hectares of land worldwide in order to deliver the necessary bioenergy production. This is roughly equivalent to a third of the land currently put to agricultural use for food and feed.

Drax for its part has publicly criticized the British wind and solar sectors for such concerns, telling the Telegraph that intermittent wind and solar cannot deliver even one per cent of the UK’s power needs “with reasonable regularity.”

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