Coal and wood pellets aren’t the only things burning at the Drax Power Station in Yorkshire, England. The facility is under fire for claiming to be the world’s first power plant with “negative emissions.” The world’s biggest “green” power plant has an ambitious plan underway to burn biomass, capture greenhouse gas emissions, and bury them under the North Sea. But critics are having a tough time believing the claims – especially since recent studies show the power plant may actually be increasing emissions.


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Drax has been in operation since 1974, and began burning coal exclusively. Plans for the new “White Rose Carbon Capture Project” center around a new power station that would burn biomass – in the form of wood pellets – and capture around 90 percent of the CO2 emissions to be buried under the North Sea. The White Rose plant won’t only burn biomass, though. It will continue to use coal as well. The official plan reveals that up to 15 percent of the fuel burned will be coal, although the plant will be allowed to burn any combination of wood pellets and coal.

The power plant, which supplies between seven to nine percent of England’s electricity, started burning biomass in three of its six generators earlier this year. “Since the beginning of July, half of Drax’s electricity has been generated by burning biomass, mostly from pine forests in the American Deep South,” Drax’s vice-president for sustainability, Richard Peberdy, told New Scientist.

Related: Understanding biomass as a renewable energy source

Switching to biomass doesn’t seem to be enough to reduce carbon emissions, ironically. A study released earlier this summer shows that the switch by Drax from coal to wood is actually generating more carbon emissions than it was before. The study indicates Drax’s levels are four times as high as the maximum level set by the government for biomass-burning plants.

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Drax’s overall plan hasn’t been completed, though, and company officials have assured that – in the long term – the greenhouse gas emissions will be reversed. This is promised to take place largely with the Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) plan, which is still awaiting government approval later this year. If the go-ahead is given, the £500-million ($777 million) White Rose project will kick off and start capturing as much as 2 million tonnes of CO2 annually starting in 2020. The emissions would then be sent down a 165-km (102-mile) pipeline to be buried under the North Sea. In addition to the CCS, Drax plans to plant new forests and purchase credits to offset any emissions that are not captured.

The other issue at point is the source of the wood pellets. Next year, as much as 7 million tonnes of pellets will cross the Atlantic to be burned at Drax. That will supply around 95 percent of the plant’s biomass, with the remaining five percent coming from the UK. American environmentalists are concerned about what impact such a market will have on the delicate ecosystems in the South.

Related: New biomass plant for UK looks like a giant green volcano

Critics also point out since wood pellets cost 2.5 times as much as coal, the so-called cleaner fuel is costing customers a lot more. Drax received a £340 million (around $528 million) government subsidy as a green energy producer, and many speculate the model would fail without that assistance.

Drax officials and others in a position to benefit financially from the new power plant say sustainable biomass and CCS are the only way to make a substantial impact on carbon emissions. Yet, even those who recognize some benefits – like a demand for planting more trees to produce the pellets to be burned – don’t think the plan will be enough to save the world. In the end, skeptics of the White Rose plan tend to agree reducing overall dependence on electricity is a better way to curb carbon emissions.

Via New Scientist

Image via Shutterstock (1, 2) and New Scientist