THE village of Drax, population 500, out on the flatlands between Leeds and Hull, can trace its history back to before the Romans.
It boasts an Anglo-Saxon chapel and a mention in the Domesday book as home to six villagers, two freemen and a priest.
Since 1971, however, it has been best-known for one thing – the largest coal-fired power station in Britain and the second largest in Europe. The plant’s 850ft concrete chimney was once the highest in the world. Three miles of rail lines connect the various operations.
It dominates the landscape, as do its “children”... the largest man-made hills in the country, old king coal piled up in spades.
At peak, Drax burns 36,000 tonnes of coal a day, producing enough electricity to power Scotland. But as a result, it emits 20 million tonnes of CO2 every year into the atmosphere. It is the one of the highest point source polluters in Europe.
Not the environmentalists’ favourite then. Protests there have been frequent, arrests occasional.
But then power station chiefs took a bold strategic decision: Drax would shake off its sooty past and metamorphose into a biomass-fuelled generator burning sustainably-sourced wood chips and dedicated ‘energy’ crops.
Drax plans to convert three of its six generating units to run on biomass. The first unit was converted in 2013. The second unit in 2014. The third unit will go green next year.
How further plans will be influenced by this week’s announcement of the final death-knell for coal-fuelled generation has yet to be announced at the time of writing.
During its lifetime, biomass (plant life to you and me) absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere and store it as energy. It’s a process called photosynthesis, for those who remember their school biology. When the plant material is burned, 80 per cent less CO2 is emitted than with coal.
The other big difference is that you can replant the biomass; 300 million years are required to create the coal.
With the price of coal now only $50 per tonne compared to a 2009 high of $180, Drax’s green dream may seem oddly timed.
With coal so cheap, surely any biomass production will cost more? However, there are compelling reasons for Drax to make the change.
The UK presently consumes 17 per cent less energy than it did a decade ago, the result of greater efficiency and the legacy of the recent economic crisis. We consume 16 per cent less oil, 32 per cent less natural gas and 19 per cent less coal.
By helpful contrast, we use 52 per cent more renewable energy, although the renewables share of our overall consumption is still very low at around seven per cent.
This has not happened by accident. The change has been driven by Government policy and subsidy.
The second driver of change is the EU. The Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) of 2010 has set strict emission limit for large plants like Drax.
From New Year’s Day, Drax will no longer be able to burn coal high in nitric oxides, which will all but eliminate British coal from the mix. So EU law severely constrains coal use.
Between the IED and the Large Combustion Plants Directive that preceded it, hundreds of coal-fired power stations around Europe have been forced to accept stricter environmental rules or close by the end of 2015.
Drax puts food on the table of a thousand workers. It is the backbone of Britain’s energy generation.
Conversion of Drax from coal to biomass will help the plant step in to the new generation of energy production, protecting the jobs of the workforce while helping to keep the lights on.
Biomass is abundant. It does grow on trees.
It addresses the challenges of climate change and energy security in a single step.
In many ways Drax should be the “poster plant” for the EU. A power station synonymous in the UK with the coal is converting one generating unit at a time to a green future.
There will be costs and challenges, but in 20 years Drax will still be keeping the lights on when many plants of a similar pedigree have gone the way of the coal scuttle and chimney sweep.
Amjad Bashir is Conservative MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber.