Is UK’s £2B Drax Deal Key to “Carbon-Negative” Power?

The controversial agreement will see Drax, the world's second largest biomass producer, bury carbon in the North Sea.

Wed 21 Feb 24


It is a dream scenario for fighting the climate crisis. One of Europe’s largest and historically highest polluting power stations, at its peak, emitting 23 million tons of C02, trading coal for wood-powered biochar, and burying the carbon to become the world’s first “carbon negative” energy source.

Now, with the help of North American forests and storage in the Northern Sea, the dream is closer to reality after the UK Government green-lit a £2 Billion-plus retrofit for its North Yorkshire plant, opening the door for the company to produce “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage” (known as BECCs).

Announced by UK Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho, the controversial deal will see Drax – formerly the country’s largest coal-powered energy plant – bolt carbon capture units onto two separate generators at its power stations. 

Once operational, each unit will prevent up to 4 million tons of carbon pollution from entering the atmosphere, with the carbon then stored under the North Sea.

Over the past 15 years, power giant Drax has transitioned from one of the world’s largest coal-powered plants to the second-largest biomass producer as part of their green transition – footage courtesy of @DraxGroup.

Billed as “another milestone” in the development of BECCs, Drax CEO Will Gardiner said the deal demonstrated “the critical role” the technology could have in “delivering large-scale carbon removals.”

According to Mr Gardiner, “BECCs offer the most cost-effective, straightforward and efficient way to help countries meet climate targets, and could save billions of pounds, remove millions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere and support energy security.”

The deal, which has suffered from several false starts and missteps since being proposed over a decade ago, will see the mega-polluter becoming the world’s largest industrial absorber of C02.

“It is very exciting (new) technology,” according to Jeremey Tomkinson from the UK National Non-Food Crops Centre, who, in 2015, spoke to New Scientist about the technology, “it means we can reduce the volume of C02 in the atmosphere.”

Under the plan, Drax will store carbon stored from its BECCs in secured locations under the North Sea – where the carbon will be stored underwater permanently – footage courtesy of @DraxGroup.

Already, Drax has exited from coal and has become the world’s second-largest producer after burning its last lump of coal in 2021 and retrofitting its 18 power cylinders to take woody residues as feedstock.

To feed the furnaces, it has been busy acquiring 18 mills at last count across the US and Canada, turning logs cut from local pine forests into five million-plus tons of compressed pellets before shipping them back to the UK from the Port of Prince Rupert (Vancouver), the Port of Baton Rouge (Louisiana) and the Port of Mobile (Alabama). 

It also supports Drax-produced pellets with additional hardwood pellets secured from third-party providers across North America and UK-based biomass from straw and miscanthus (which makes up less than 5% of its feedstock.)

In theory, this creates a carbon-neutral energy because the trees and other plants that are burnt first absorb carbon, then are burnt and release the same carbon back into the atmosphere.

The technology has its critics; last year, the Canadian-based Fifth Estate investigated how British Columbia has become a leading exporter of wood pellets burned to fuel energy needs in the U.K., Japan and South Korea – footage courtesy of @cbcfifthestate.

However, critics argue that for this to occur, Drax must only use “sustainable wood” from “sustainably managed forests” in its boilers – disputed by the BBC, which in 2022 raised concerns that it was taking mature trees from “environmentally important forests” in Canada.

At the same time, the UK energy regulator launched an investigation – which is still ongoing – to determine if the company breached sustainability requirements around the wood it was using in pellets.

In addition, the technology is controversial, with Tomos Harrison, an electricity transition analyst from think tank Ember, claiming that “BECCS is an unproven and highly controversial technology that would come at a significant cost to the UK public.”

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The proposal would not only see Drax become the world’s first carbon-negative power station but also make Drax a hub of the UK’s first zero-carbon industrial cluster – known as Zero Carbon Humber- helping to decarbonise the North of England. (Photo Credit: Drax Group)

He said that BECCS “is an expensive gamble” that could cost the UK taxpayer £1.7B per year with “public money better spent on increasing grid capacity and battery storage, and further expanding wind and solar generation.”

Amongst the criticisms by scientists is that it takes decades for the carbon released by burning the biomass to be reabsorbed by new trees and plants as they grow.

In the decision published, the UK government said that its assessors had concluded that “over the whole life of the proposed development, there would be negative GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions due to carbon captured in the operational phase”.

The Drax site is the largest power plant in the UK and, by one measure, supplies around 4% of Great Britain’s electricity.

Once delivered, the site could remove around eight million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year when fully operational. That is around 1.6% of the total emissions that the UK produced in 2022.


  • Jason Ross

    Jason Ross, publisher, is a 15-year professional in building and construction, connecting with more than 400 specifiers. A Gottstein Fellowship recipient, he is passionate about growing the market for wood-based information. Jason is Wood Central's in-house emcee and is available for corporate host and MC services.


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