Night Phlox

My foolish dreams

A visit to Drax

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Many people have called me ‘opinionated’, a word which I often think implies complete blindness towards viewpoints that differ to our own. I never thought I was that stubborn, and now I have evidence to suggest I’m right about that. A quick glance at a previous post will tell you that I’m pro-nuclear, pro-environment (yes, those two match perfectly) and anti-fossil fuels (and CCS).

Now, none of those things have changed – but today’s university field trip to Drax power station has certainly made me more willing to accept some forms of fossil fuel based electricity production in the UK’s future energy mix.

Drax power station generates anywhere between 7-10% of the UK’s electricity (Wikipedia disagrees with what we were told on site by a very friendly Geordie tour guide who I’m inclined to believe over an online encyclopedia). Unsurprisingly, Drax power station is the UK’s largest source of CO2 emissions. 90% of the fuel is coal, with around 10% consisting of different biomass products such as straw, peanut husks, hardwood, willow and elephant grass.

You can read more about Drax here and here.

Here’s a few of the more interesting things I discovered during the field trip:

  • Drax uses more than 160 million litres of water daily (for cooling purposes). I found this figure to be astonishing, and impossible to get my head around.
  • 50% of the coal used for electricity generation is sourced from outside the UK. Now, I don’t know much about how easy the UK’s coal reserves are to get to, but I know that we have plenty of the stuff. It seems sad that so much of this fuel is imported from elsewhere.
  • The EU threshold for acceptable sulphur dioxide emissions is set to half by 2016. Space at Drax is limited, so they will struggle to meet these new regulations easily. Is the threshold cut necessary? Is it right that the costs for power stations like Drax will be so high? I’d be inclined to disagree entirely with the former, and mutter a vague answer to the second.
  • Drax are definitely trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Several turbines are being replaced which will increase the station’s efficiency from 38% to 40%. A huge new biomass plant is also opening soon. (Whether biomass is worth the effort is another issue entirely). The staff we met on site seemed very keen to stress the environmental and efficiency advances of the power station over the last few years and into the future. Although the current political focus is far away from environmental issues, Drax wants to be seen as doing all they can to reduce their emissions.
  • The Drax site is huge. Really huge. I felt like I was walking around a giant’s world. Our coach drove under a pipe that was wider than the channel tunnel.
  • There was not a single mention of CCS. I had expected at least a passing mention of the lack of viability of CCS for Drax as it’s so far from the sea, but to not mention it at all suggests that it is not yet taken seriously within the industry.

I left the site having thoroughly enjoyed our tour around the power station. It was impossible not to admire the scale and complexity of the operations that take place at Drax.

But as our tour guide said, generating electricity is the easy part. It’s the environmental efforts that are difficult.

That is precisely why I found myself rooting for a coal-fired power station. At Drax they were open; transparent. They wanted to change. Yes, one might say that the changes will only dress coal power in a slightly smarter coat, but the thirst for innovation and efficiency – which I admit is largely driven by the need to be competitive – is encouraging to see. Even when the public and government eye is not focused on our highest emitters due to distractions elsewhere, Drax continue to invest in research and development, and however much you hate the fossil-fuel industry, as I do, that is something that we should grudgingly respect.

And by the way, someone really should find a way to capture the potential energy from water as it cascades down to the bases of cooling towers.


Written by Freya

Thursday 16th February 2012 at 11:35 pm

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