Andy Koss: Invest in biomass for green power around the clock

Drax Power Station.
Drax Power Station.
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THE energy industry regulator Ofgem has published its annual report on the support paid to renewable power generators in the UK, and one clear fact emerges: of all the large scale renewable power technologies, biomass delivers the best value for money.

Data published alongside the report showed that Drax Power Station tops the table of the 10 biggest renewable projects to receive support under the Government’s Renewables Obligation (RO).

We produced more than five times the renewable power of second-placed London Array, a wind farm off the South East coast. The others in the top 10 are all offshore wind farms.

Analysis of the Ofgem data by Dr Iain Staffell, lecturer in Sustainable Energy at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, reveals that the average support Drax received was £43.05 per megawatt hour (MWh) generated from its biomass units.

This is half what was paid to the big offshore wind farms, which received £88.70 per MWh. The average support received across all generators in the RO scheme – which includes much smaller projects and all types of technology – is £58 per MWh – around £15 per MWh more than the support received by Drax.

The cost benefit of biomass to the country and consumers (we all pay for support given to renewables through our electricity bills) is therefore clear.

This is all the more relevant in the drive for affordable, low carbon power, which is at the heart of the Government’s new Industrial Strategy. It also makes a strong case for continued support for our coal-to-biomass upgrades.

The Government wants to end unabated coal power generation by 2025 and all but one of the country’s existing fleet of nuclear power stations is due to be shut by 2030.

Hinkley Point C isn’t expected to come on grid until the late 2020s and it will be replacing lost nuclear capacity, and nowhere near all of it, rather than providing the ‘new’ energy we desperately need to plug the gap the end of coal will create. Other nuclear projects are also looking less certain.

So how will we ensure we have enough power?

More wind and solar on the system is a vital part of Britain’s dramatically changing energy landscape, especially if we are to meet the tough targets for reducing carbon emissions in the Climate Change Act.

However, relying on the weather is not a solution on its own. The fluctuations in what intermittent renewables can deliver was demonstrated last year. During December 2016, wind power produced 10 gigawatts (GW) for the equivalent of a whole day. That’s the capacity of two-and-a-half Drax Power Stations or three Hinkley Point Cs. However, wind farms also spent the equivalent of a whole day during the same month producing less than 0.7GW – an output of just five per cent of their installed national capacity.

When the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, we need reliable, flexible power that can support the intermittency of ultra-low carbon technologies.

Biomass at Drax provides continuous and flexible renewable power, which boosts security of supply. Drax also has plans for four rapid-response gas plants at other sites in England and Wales, which at the flick of a switch will be up and running in 10 minutes, giving us vital flexibility to provide additional system support, enabling more wind and solar to come onto the grid.

And as well as supporting other renewables, our use of sustainably-sourced low grade wood to produce compressed wood pellets to generate renewable electricity delivers at least 80 per cent carbon savings compared to coal. This is independently verified and covers the full carbon footprint from across our entire supply chain including harvesting, processing and transportation. The savings are reported monthly to Ofgem.

In deciding what will replace coal, the Government is allocating support to renewables through a series of energy auctions – called Contracts for Difference (CfDs). The first of these auctions opened this week is just for offshore wind and what it calls ‘less established technologies’. Coal-to-biomass upgrades need not apply.

There are two further auctions planned during this Parliament. Business Secretary Greg Clark and his department must think carefully about which technologies should be included in these.

I hope the Secretary of State and his department are listening to what their own research is telling them.

At Drax, we already generate 16 per cent of the UK’s renewable electricity – enough to power four million households.

With the right conditions, we could upgrade more units, get more coal off the system and supply the country with more affordable, flexible and reliable low carbon power.

Andy Koss is chief executive of Drax Power Ltd.