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On November 5, 2020, the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center hosted Will Gardiner, chief executive officer of Drax Group, as part of EnergySource Innovation Stream, an online series that highlights new energy technologies with the potential to reshape the global energy system. Gardiner discussed how Drax Group is pursuing negative emissions by adding carbon capture and storage to biomass generation at the United Kingdom’s (UK) largest power station. Randolph Bell, director of the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center and Morningstar chair for global energy security, delivered introductory remarks and moderated the discussion.
Gardiner began his presentation by outlining how Drax Group has integrated biomass fuel at their power station in Selby, North Yorkshire, which generates about 5 percent of the UK’s power. Over the past fifteen years, Drax Group has been working to convert their coal-fired generating plant to biomass fuel. The company expects to stop running coal by the end of March 2021. In 2012, Drax Power Station generated 23 million tons of CO2 emissions, whereas in 2019, the company reported less than 5 million tons. Gardner said that the biggest challenge to biomass conversion is building safe materials-handling infrastructure, as biomass is highly combustible and must be kept dry. Once the biomass enters the mill to be pulverized and sent to the fuel boiler, the fuel production process does not change because pulverized coal and biomass burn the same way. Drax Group found that the thermal efficiency of biomass is on track to meet that of coal’s, nearing 39 percent, and that biomass produces as much as or more energy than coal. The four power-generating units at Drax Power Station have been able to achieve the same level of output using biomass at 645 megawatts per unit.
The next step in the process is to add carbon capture and storage infrastructure to the plant. Drax Group will add an absorber column onto the back end of the power station to collect the flue gas associated with power generation. Then, the flue gas will be mixed with a solvent that becomes CO2-rich while the other associated particles are expelled. The CO2-rich solvent will be cycled through the system by heat exchange, leaving CO2 to be pumped through a pipeline to be stored in a saline aquifer in the North Sea, managed by the Northern Endurance Partnership. According to Gardiner, the pipeline and offshore infrastructure could be built as early as 2024 if the government approves funding.
Gardiner emphasized the need for negative emissions to reach the UK’s 2050 climate goals, adding that Drax Group aims to be a carbon-negative company by 2030. The Climate Change Committee (CCC), formed in the UK twelve years ago as part of the Climate Change Act, provides advice to the government on the strategies available for decarbonizing the economy. To achieve net zero by 2050, the CCC observes a need for 50 million tons of negative emissions to offset the projected 90 million tons of residual positive CO2 emissions in the 2050 base case scenario, specifically coming from bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Drax’s four power units could generate up 16 million tons of the 50 million tons of negative emissions needed. Drax Group has helped build a coalition to make the case for negative emissions and enabled a cluster of British companies to develop a proposal outlining the necessary infrastructure upgrades. Thus far, the UK government has committed around £800 million to develop CCS infrastructure. He emphasized that BECCS will be enabled by four fundamental action items: infrastructure upgrades, technological advancements, government funding, and an effective regulatory model.
Audience questions focused on the sustainability of biomass and its potential future in the energy system. Gardiner pointed out that the current regulatory framework requires that wood pellets come from growing, properly managed forests. The wood pellets at Drax Power Station are sourced 60 percent from the United States, 20 percent from Canada, and 20 percent from the rest of the world. Drax Group must submit their pellet sourcing data to the UK Office of Gas and Electrical Markets every year and receive certification from the Sustainable Biomass Program. Drax Group has also made an additional commitment to mitigate potential damage to biodiversity, and Gardner mentioned that the company has foresters working with suppliers to verify fiber source and ensure positive outcomes.
Turning to the audience poll, participants were asked to predict the potential demand for biofuels in 2040. The plurality of the audience predicted 6 million barrels per day, indicating a significant need for continued investment. Drax Group worked with McKinsey to determine the theoretical limit of the amount of biomass that could be incorporated into the energy system. After applying stringent filters to ensure sustainability, the study found that biomass could generate up to 4 gigatons of negative C02 emissions by using less than 1 percent of total fiber in the world, which is approximately equivalent to the amount of emissions from the aviation industry. Gardner explained that carbon recapture in the forest makes the generation neutral, and CCS infrastructure pulls it negative. He insisted that a first-of-its-kind project must have revenue certainty to make an initial investment and explained that the government must continue to work with the private sector to engage stakeholders and install the necessary infrastructure. Finally, Gardiner commented on the potential for BECCS in the United States. He said that it is easier to establish a framework for BECCS technology in the UK because of the country’s smaller size. While the United States has a complex utility market, he posited that there are interesting ways to apply BECCS incentives and regulation that are similar to existing state standards and programs. In the long term he said that negative emissions could bolster market principles because there would be both users and creators of “emission” credits, establishing better supply and demand dynamics.
Frank Willey is a Fall 2020 Global Energy Center Intern.
Will Gardiner, chief executive officer of Drax Group
Will Gardiner is redefining the company’s future – building on its proud history with exciting ambitions for the business to be the cornerstone of a zero-carbon economy.
Following an international career spanning the US, UK & Latin America, including Executive positions at JP Morgan, Easynet and CSR, Will joined Drax in 2015 as CFO, as it was completing the final stages of the largest decarbonisation project in Europe, following the conversion of the power station from coal to sustainable biomass.
Will is now leading Drax on another journey of transformation. Appointed as CEO in 2018, Will’s vision for Drax is firmly focussed on enabling a zero carbon, lower cost energy future, and spearheading the company’s world-leading ambition to be carbon negative by 2030.
Under his leadership, Drax is pioneering the development of Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), putting Drax and the UK at the forefront of negative emissions technology to fight climate change.
Negative Emissions Technologies such as BECCS are essential to meeting the UK’s Net Zero targets and will create a sustainable future for the company, driving a post-Covid green recovery; delivering investment, clean growth and jobs across the North, whilst continuing to generate the renewable power relied on by millions of homes and businesses.
As a FTSE CEO, Will is particularly interested in the wider role of business in society, and the role of government in promoting a business and research-friendly environment. As an American citizen, with a BA from Harvard and a Masters in International Relations & Economics from The John Hopkins University, Will has a keen interest in global affairs, free trade and supply chains, as well as UK-US relations and the UK’s political and economic role internationally. In his free time, he is equally likely to be found at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium or the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.