A quiet revolution is taking place at Drax Power Station, which could become the UK’s first to run entirely on wood pellets. Neil Hudson took a walk around the UK’s biggest power plant
There were a few occasions last year when the whole of the country was running entirely on alternative power (that is: not coal) and Drax in North Yorkshire was supplying around 20 per cent of that.
So what were they using instead? Wind? Solar panels? Ancient crystals? No. The answer might surprise you: wood pellets. It looks a bit like cat litter, the biodegradable kind made from compressed wood.
The move away from coal as a fuel source has been deliberate and work began a decade ago, even before Government low emissions targets were fostered upon them as part of the so-called green agenda.
Abandoning fossil fuels meant finding a new source of sustainable energy which was at the same time kind to nature. So when you turn on your kettle, television, mobile phone, lawnmower and any number of other gadgets and pieces of household equipment, an increasing amount of that energy comes from billions of tiny bits of compressed wood: these are the sweepings from sawmills and left-overs from commercially managed forests used to supply other industries.
Most of the raw material is collected in North America, taken to two purpose-built pellet plants in Mississippi and Louisiana and from there to a port facility at Baton Rouge, also in Louisiana and put onto tankers carrying 60,000 tons a time, arriving at places like Liverpool, Immingham and Hull, after which it is loaded onto specially designed freight trains, which then feed the furnaces at Drax at a rate of 17 per day, dropping their loads into vast underground chambers where more giant machines process them.
In May 2016 coal generation hit zero for the first time in 100 years. Last year for the first time more than half of the electricity produced in a three month period came from low carbon energy sourcesAndy Koss, chief executive
These are big figures but then everything about Drax is larger than life. It’s gigantic cooling towers might be the most recognisable symbol of the power station but there are other, equally impressive, structures lurking amid the sprawling 3,000 acre site.
The tour around the power plant reveals some surreal sights. At one point, we drive beneath two vast cleaning pipes, each big enough to fit in two double deckers stood one atop the other, while further on a fire engine appears (lights flashing) but it turns out this is just a drill for the permanently on-site crew (they also have their own ambulance service, just in case any of the 1,000 full-time workers are injured, although according to the accident board near the entrance, they’ve been incident free for over well over 100 days.)
The turbines used to generate the power are also huge, some as big as small houses, revolving at 3,000rpm and powered by steam at 568 degrees Celsius. Among the newest additions to the gargantuan infrastructure are the giant biodomes used to house the thousands of tons of wood pellets. The Royal Albert Hall could fit easily into each of them.
They are surrounded by coiling walkways and broad metal conveyors, which emerge from the ground and disappear off into the sky. Beyond them lie spoil heaps and coal storage heaps from open cast mining, a legacy of the past and yet still within touching distance.
To look at this place it’s easy to imagine you’re on the set of a Sci-fi flick. It’s bleak, grimy, industrialised gigantism, made all the more sombre on the day I visit by a slate grey sky, but look again at the domes and towers, the endless metal gantries and walkways threading their way like veins over, across and through these structures and there’s a strange beauty in them - It’s sci-fi made real. The future now.
At the end of the day, however, it is still a power station and its job is to make electricity. On demand. So, it’s no myth that during every TV advert break there’s a power surge, as thousands of people simultaneously scramble to put the kettle on. But trends change. So, there’s now an equally significant spike on an evening when people go to bed and plug in their phones and tablets.
Likewise, if there’s a particularly juicy storyline on Emmerdale or a football match goes into extra time, people working in the control room have to up the output.
Chief executive Andy Koss says: “The UK energy is moving away from coal – a fuel of the past – as traditional coal-fired power stations close down and renewables and other technologies take over. In May 2016, coal generation hit zero for the first time in 100 years. Last year also saw the first time ever that more than half of the electricity produced in a three month period came from low carbon energy sources.”
The company began looking at biomass about 10 years ago and by 2025 it plans to phase out coal altogether. Last December saw the culmination of a ten-year £650m renewable project to upgrade half of the power station to run entirely on sustainable biomass in place of coal.
“There were huge technical challenges to overcome and ground-breaking innovation was required at every stage, but we have now successfully transformed Drax to become Europe’s largest decarbonisation project, making carbon savings of more than 80 per cent compared to coal. In the first half of 2016, 70 per cent of the electricity we generated came from sustainable biomass.
“Drax operates four giant biomass storage domes which hold the compressed wood pellets required for half the power station that has been upgraded from running on coal. With the right conditions we stand ready to convert the remainder of the power station to also run on biomass.
He adds: “We have upgraded half of the power station to run on sustainable biomass in the form of compressed wood pellets. With the right conditions [we will convert] the remainder of Drax by 2025.”
Keen to boost its green credentials, Drax has also committed to making more of the vast nature reserve which is adjacent to the site. Half as large as Roundhay Park in Leeds, it runs to 380 acres, with woodland walks, lakes, streams and rolling meadows and currently only open at certain times.
Drax visitor centre manager, Rachael Baldwin says: “Drax nature reserve has picturesque picnic areas, nature walks and is home to over 100 species of wildlife. The nature reserve and educational Skylark Centre are open to the public each weekend and Drax is committed to encouraging increasing numbers of visitors.”
Despite its sheer size, Drax is remarkably inconspicuous from certain approaches, lost amid the vast flat acres of farmland which characterise this part of Yorkshire, where murders of crows hop and peck at the fringes of farmer’s fields and lines of trees stripped bare by winter skirt past lonely houses.
There’s a kind of melancholy about Drax. This is a place which has come from the past and has its roots deep in old industry, in the grime and dirt of long closed mines and yet it is also possibly one of the most forward looking and nimble (for its size) businesses in the UK, if not Europe and beyond.