2050 may seem a long way off – but we urgently need to act if we are to address the climate crisis. That’s why I announced our new ambition to become the world’s first carbon negative company by 2030 at the UN’s Climate Change conference in Madrid.
Some may doubt a company, which was once the UK’s biggest coal-fired power station, could undergo such a radical transformation. But this ambition is achievable. By applying bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) technology to the biomass generating units at our power station near Selby, we can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, whilst we produce enough flexible, renewable electricity for four million households.
This negative emissions technology would allow us to become the first company in the world to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than we produce throughout our operations – even if we include our biomass supply chain emissions.
Drax’s successful BECCS pilot is already capturing one tonne of carbon dioxide a day. With the right support, we could capture millions of tonnes of CO2 a year, creating a negative carbon footprint within a decade.
To get there requires an effective negative emissions policy and investment framework, which the Government is working on. Support for negative emissions technologies like BECCS is no different from the support that helped offshore wind grow from a fledgling technology a decade ago – to become the major contributor it is now to the UK’s power grid.
Installed offshore wind capacity has increased around 14 times to 8.2 gigawatts in 2018 compared with 0.6 gigawatts in 2008. Over the same period the cost of generating that electricity has decreased to £39/MWh in 2019 from £114/MWh in 2015. Offshore wind now supplies around 7.5 per cent of the UK’s electricity. Technologies like offshore wind and biomass have also created jobs and clean growth.
Since converting two thirds of Drax to use biomass instead of coal, the power station produces around 12 per cent of the UK’s renewable electricity – flexible, renewable power which delivers carbon savings of more than 80 per cent compared to when we used coal.
And now we could go much further – using BECCS to permanently remove up to 16 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. To put that in context – it is around a third of the negative emissions the Committee on Climate Change says is needed for the UK to meet net zero.
And by using BECCS the power station could be the ‘anchor’ for the UK’s first zero carbon industrial cluster in the Humber region. We are working with Equinor and National Grid Ventures on the Zero Carbon Humber campaign, which aims to transform the Humber region – the biggest emitter of CO2 in the UK – to become the country’s first net zero emissions industrial cluster.
Building a pipeline to connect the power station to CO2 storage sites under the North Sea would allow other industrial emitters across the Humber region to tap into the same infrastructure, capturing and storing as much as 30 million tonnes of CO2. This would help firms decarbonise, saving £27.5bn in carbon taxes by 2040 and protecting 55,000 jobs.
Our journey beyond coal began over a decade ago, when we did something that many believed was impossible – replacing coal generation with sustainable, renewable biomass.
This made Drax the biggest decarbonisation project in Europe whilst creating a just transition for thousands of workers in the North, protecting thousands of jobs at Drax and throughout our supply chains, and also contributing around £600m a year to the northern economy.
If we are to defeat the climate crisis we must do it in a way that unlocks jobs and economic growth, unleashes entrepreneurial spirit and leaves nobody behind.
The UK is unrivalled in its efforts to decarbonise in this way and with BECCS it can continue to lead the world.
Will Gardiner is chief executive of Drax.