Lest any of you thought my last post on converting oil-fired power stations to renewables was a bit fanciful, let me tell you that Britain’s biggest power station, Drax, is already doing exactly that – converting part of its power output to biomass. It is investing in a co-firing facility that will reduce its carbon footprint by about 15%. And there’s more. The company has also announced last October that it is to develop three new biomass plants, each of 300mw capacity. One of them, it is suggested, might be built on the main site itself. I met with Drax a few weeks ago and they took me through the process and their ambitions. It’s all genuine – and two cheers to them for their biomass plans.
It is, of course, though, about Drax’s survival as an independent producer in a future coal-wary power world. The 3.9gw facility is not backed by a vertically integrated energy giant, and if they don’t adapt, they’ll die. They already have adapted, with desulphurisation plant, beyond the EU Large Plant directive, but an output of 7% of the UKs electricity falling at the next hurdle could involve difficulties for future power supply, which is why it is worth having a look at the extent to which this survival might be linked to electricity market reform, and specifically to Energy Performance Standards proposals within it, presently being consulted on. I commented previously on the rather strange levels of emissions up for consultation – either a ‘higher’ level of 600 gms per Kilowatt hour, or the lower level of 450gms.
So let’s do the maths. (We’re British here, so there is an‘s’). Drax is a modern coal plant, refitted with efficient processing equipment. It probably comes in at about 700gms per KWh. We can calculate the effect of its co-firing plans…..ah yes, here come the figures – 15% off 700 – gosh, just under the 600 figure at 595gms.
Ah, you say, but what about the lower alternative level, huh? What happens if that comes in? If it does, then we might turn to Thomas Aquinas. (“what?!” you may well add – bear with me.) Power stations are not quite what they seem. Each one is a collection of mini-power stations, – ‘burners’ – which operate separately. Some run only some burners some of the time (like the oil fired power stations I mentioned previously). Drax has six. The issue of burners became important in a previous debate about emission standards and co-firing a few years ago. Co-firing was difficult because most fuel was then classed as waste, and a whole power station would have to have standards and handling in place to make it ‘Waste Incineration Directive (WID) compliant’. The Environment Agency, reasonably in my view, decided that only the burner involved in co-firing would have to be WID compliant, and a problem was solved.
Moving back to the present, then, would a ‘new biomass facility’ on the Drax site count as a new power station or as an additional burner? A question worthy of Aquinas, who famously debated how many angels could dance on a pinhead. (He didn’t actually – that was a later propaganda attack on the alleged casuistry of medieval philosophy: but he did debate whether two angels could occupy the same space. Tom’s answer was No.)
But there could be a modern debate about whether two power stations can occupy the same space. And hang on a moment – here come some more figures – 300mw you say – isn’t that about a 9% reduction in carbon if you look on it as a ‘burner? Still over 500 gms, but not far to go. Just a little more co-firing in the main plant (oops – the other burners). The Aquinians have it, and something opaque becomes clearer.