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Electricity has been causing clocks in Europe to run slowly. This is why

On ‘the continent’ – in the cultured, sun-blushed terraces of the Mediterranean, time moves slowly. Or at least, that’s the view from the grey British Isles. It turns out, however, it’s true.

Or at least for the first weeks of 2018, it was true. At first, it was small – perhaps too small to notice. But by early March, electrical clocks in Europe were running nearly six minutes slow. What caused this mass scale time loss? Electricity.

But to understand how electricity was causing clocks to lose time, you first need to understand how it helps them keep time.

How does electricity keep time?

Almost all clocks (save for the earliest sundials and hourglasses), measure time using a simple dynamic: oscillation – the repetitive and rhythmic movement of something between two points.

For example, in a pendulum clock, each swing (or oscillation) of a suspended weight between two points shifts a single tooth of a gear, which in turn shifts other gears and eventually the hands of a clock face. Because that movement is consistent and regular, it can be used as a measurement of time.

Clock technology has advanced beyond the abilities of a pendulum, but it remains driven by this principle of measuring oscillation. A quartz clock measures the vibration (or oscillation) of a piece of quartz, an atomic clock measures the vibration of atoms and electrons, and an electrical clock measures the oscillation of electricity –  otherwise known as its frequency.

The fundamentals of electrical frequency

In the UK and across Europe, all electricity operates at a frequency of 50 hertz (Hz), which is determined by the number of directional changes alternating current (AC) electricity makes every second. A synchronous electrical clock – the kind found in ovens, microwaves and digital alarm clocks – uses this consistent oscillation to measure seconds and tell time.

Electrical clocks have been designed this way because electricity’s frequency is consistent – it needs to be. Any slight deviations above or below 50 Hz can damage electrical devices and equipment. In Great Britain, National Grid and service operators around the country – including Drax Power Station – work to maintain this consistent frequency through a service called frequency response, which instructs generators to either increase or decrease generation depending on overall network demand, which in turn controls frequency.

This is because frequency is regulated by keeping generation and demand across a network perfectly balanced. Too much generation drives frequency higher, not enough causes it to fall.

It’s this that caused Europe’s electrical clocks to run slowly. But to understand the source of the frequency imbalance, you first need to understand how Europe’s grid works.

How six minutes dropped off the map

The ‘Continental Europe’ power system connects 25 countries from Spain to Turkey in one synchronous electrical network which runs on the same frequency and can all share power.

Within this there are smaller transmission system operators (TSOs) that balance the power supply of smaller groups of countries like National Grid does for GB’s network.

One of these zones includes Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, a region with well-known longstanding political tensions. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, however Serbia refuses to recognise its sovereignty – a feeling which extends to some parts of Kosovo’s population.

Night view of Pristina, capital city of Kosovo.

In the Northern parts of Kosovo (along the Serbian border) the population is largely of Serbian origin and side with Serbia on the question of Kosovo’s independence. They also refuse to pay for its power. This leaves the rest of the country – who are largely of Albanian descent – to pay the cost of the country’s overall electricity, which they do via subsidies added to their bills.

But when Kosovo’s energy regulator removed the subsidy earlier this year it led to a sudden hole in the money paying generators, which in turn led to a fall in how much electricity was being generated. Crucially, however, demand didn’t fall with it.

Instead, Kosovo was using more power than it was generating, causing electrical frequency on the network to drop. And because Kosovo is part of a shared and synchronous network that stretches across the continent, that frequency imbalance (although incredibly small) spread across the network.

Overall frequency dropped 0.01% drop over the Continental European grid – too small to trigger a full system shut down, but big enough to mean that every second electrical clocks were counting was slightly slower than it should be. Big enough to mean that over time Europe lost six minutes.

As of 8 March an agreement has been met between the countries to meet demand and so, although the power that wasn’t being generated hasn’t been ‘replaced’, there is no longer an ongoing imbalance.

Frequency has normalised and clocks – now reset – are running on time.

Bitcoin’s electricity consumption problem

Bitcoin is having a breakout year. Its price fluctuations are making headlines all over the world and major investment banks are finally beginning to take it seriously. In short, bitcoin is no longer a fringe currency – it’s becoming a major player.

But for all the advantages it and other decentralised currencies offer, such as low-transaction fees and no intermediaries, there’s a fundamental problem at their core: they use an extraordinary amount of electricity.

According to bitcoin analysis site Digiconomist, the bitcoin network now uses more than 52 terawatt hours (TWh) every year – more than the whole of Portugal, Ireland or Peru. If this rate of growth continues, it’s forecast that by July 2019 it is expected to use more electricity than the US.

So, while bitcoin may be heralded as a saviour from the monopolies of big banks, what does its incredible appetite for electricity spell for the world’s power networks?

Why does bitcoin use so much electricity?

Bitcoin might be an entirely digital currency, but it still needs to be ‘created’, and this requires a process called bitcoin mining.

Bitcoin is a decentralised network, meaning transactions are carried out directly between parties without any central authority. Instead, bitcoin securely records all its transactions through a network made up of thousands of users’ computers.

Bitcoin mining is essentially the process of recording and adding these transactions to the public network or ledger – known as the blockchain. Every 10 minutes, each pending bitcoin transaction is converted into a complex mathematical problem that needs to be solved.

This is where the ‘mining’ computers come in, which use high-powered processing hardware to tackle the mathematical equations and ‘solve’ each transaction. The first miner to successfully crack one of these problems adds that bitcoin transaction to the ledger and is rewarded with an amount of newly ‘mined’ bitcoins – currently set at 12.5 bitcoins (BTC), worth roughly $140,000.

This process isn’t a quick one and relies on large numbers of high-powered computers to solve the problems. One of the largest bitcoin mining rigs in the world – in Ordos, Inner Mongolia –  is made up of eight buildings crammed with 25,000 machines, all cranking through calculations 24 hours a day.

Unsurprisingly, this huge amount of processing power uses a lot of electricity. It also requires a huge amount of space and generates a lot of heat, all of which have sent bitcoin miners around the world in search of cheap electricity, plentiful space and cold weather.

The search for cheap tech power

Iceland and Sweden have become popular destinations for bitcoin mining thanks to its climate (which keeps computer equipment from overheating) and plentiful electricity. In fact, in Iceland, mining is set to reach 840 gigawatt hours (GWh) this year – more than the 700 GWh used by the country’s households.

Iceland’s high level of geothermal and hydroelectric power means these mining operations have a low environmental impact. However, the same can’t be said of the largest bitcoin miner in the world: China.

While it has an abundance of hydropower and an increasing renewable capacity, a large amount of China’s electricity still comes from coal – 72% of its total generation came from the fossil fuel in 2015. This raises concerns around the environmental impact of bitcoin’s increasing electricity needs.

Digiconomist estimates the emissions of just one large-scale, coal-powered bitcoin mining operation (e.g. the operation in Ordos) could fall between 24-40 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per hour – roughly the same as flying a full Boeing 747-400 for the same period.

However not everyone is convinced the network is as energy intensive as reports suggest, and part of the challenge is that – despite knowing how many bitcoins are in existence – there’s no precise way of knowing how much mining is going on.

What is known, however, is that even as cryptocurrency prices fluctuate, mining is increasing. In short, bitcoin’s incredible appetite for electricity isn’t going anywhere soon. But could it get cleaner?

Moving towards cleaner mining

Some companies are tackling the problem of making bitcoin more sustainable by bringing it off grid and linking it directly to cleaner sources of power, much like how tech companies are striking deals with local renewable suppliers when locating data centres.

Hydrominer, for example, is placing mining hardware directly into hydropower stations, while HARVEST aims to use dedicated wind turbines to power mining, which takes pressure off national grids and their electricity sources.

However, a more fundamental change could be possible: making the protocol used to create bitcoins less energy-intensive.

Ethereum, arguably the main rival cryptocurrency to bitcoin, this year switched from proof-of-work-based mining to proof-of-stake. This means coin creation is not depended on high-powered computers cranking through calculations, but instead through owners validating their stake in the cryptocurrency and ‘voting’ on block creation.

Another alternative is Chia Network, which harnesses unused hard drive storage space for blockchain verification Chia ‘farmers’ for offering storage space for the network.

Both have significant ground to cover to catch the market leader, however, so the more pressing question remains: What’s next for bitcoin? And what will happen as the number of available bitcoins decreases?

The future of bitcoin

Like gold there are a limited number of bitcoins that can ever be mined – 21 million to be precise. This means the reward for bitcoin mining halves roughly every four years as they become more abundant. The next drop is scheduled for 2020 when the reward will slide to 6.25 BTC.

But this doesn’t mean they’re getting easier to mine. In fact, it is growing increasingly difficult, and this means more computer power and a need for even more electricity, which in turn means higher overheads.

A report from JP Morgan estimates the price of mining a single bitcoin has grown tenfold in the last year to $3,920,  a change that could send miners in search of cheaper utilities. More than this, the added stress on grids could lead to a growth in dirtier (and cheaper) fossil fuels which can generate and power mining operations around the clock.

This could mean that as mining becomes more difficult and rewards drop, it will be controlled by fewer, larger-scale operators which can absorb the spiraling costs. Either way, it’s expected they will be forced to reduce their electricity consumption (or at least the cost of it) to remain economical as the rewards they earn cover less of their expenses.

Ultimately, however, if cryptocurrency is set to play a positive role in our future it must become less electricity intensive and work with evolving energy systems to be as sustainable and progressive for the environment as it could be for the global economy.

How Great Britain’s breakthrough year for renewables could have powered the past

After a year of smashing renewable records, Great Britain’s electricity system is less dependent on fossil fuels than ever before. Over the course of 2017, low-carbon energy sources, including nuclear as well as renewables, accounted for half of all electricity production.

The finding comes from Electric Insights, a quarterly research paper on Britain’s power system, commissioned by Drax and written by researchers from Imperial College London. The latest report highlights how Great Britain’s electricity system is rapidly moving away from fossil fuels, with coal and gas dropping from 80% of the electricity mix in 2010 to 50% in 2017.

It’s an impressive change for eight years, but it’s even more dramatic when compared to 60 years ago.

Powering the past with renewables

In 2017 renewable output grew 27% over 2016 and produced 96 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity –  enough to power the entire country in 1958.

Back then Great Britain was dependent on one fuel: coal. It was the source of 92% of the country’s power and its high-carbon intensity meant emissions from electricity generation sat at 93 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2). Compare that to just three million tonnes of CO2 emissions from roughly the same amount of power generated in 2017, just by renewables.     

Today the electricity system is much more diverse than in 1958. In fact, with nuclear added to renewable generation, 2017’s total low-carbon capacity produced enough power to fulfil the electricity needs of 1964’s Beatlemania Britain.

But what’s enabled this growth in renewable generation? One answer, as Bob Dylan explained a year earlier, is blowin’ in the wind.

Read the full article here: Powering the past.


Stormy weather powering Great Britain

Wind power experienced a watershed year in 2017. Thanks to blusterier weather and a wave of new wind farm installations coming online, wind generation grew 45% between 2016 and 2017.

Windfarms, both onshore and offshore, produced 15% of the entire country’s electricity output in 2017, up from 10% in 2016. The 45 TWh it generated over the course of the year was almost double that of coal – and there’s potential for this to increase in 2018 as more capacity comes online.

The 1.6 gigawatts (GW) of new offshore wind turbines installed in Great Britain last year accounted for 53% of the net 3.15 GW installed across Europe. With large offshore farms at Dudgeon and Race Bank still being commissioned, the 3.2 GW of total new operating capacity registered in 2017 across offshore as well as onshore wind is on course to grow.

Co-author of the article, RenewableUK’s Head of External Affairs Luke Clark, said:

“These figures underline that renewables are central to our changing power system. Higher wind speeds and a jump in installed capacity drove a dramatic increase in the amount of clean power generated. Alongside breaking multiple records for peak output, wind energy continued to cut costs.”

As wind power is dependent on weather conditions, it is intermittent in its generation. But in 2017, more than one storm offered ideal conditions for wind turbines. During Q4 there were three named storms as well as the remnants of a hurricane all battering the British Isles, all of which helped push average wind speeds 5% higher than in 2016. While calculating wind power based on wind speed is complex, windier weather means more power – monthly average wind speed is proportional to monthly average power output from wind farms.

While the 2017 annual average wind speed of 10.1mph, was in line with the country’s long-term average, wind generation was not consistent across the year. In Q4 wind output was close to an average of 7 GW. By contrast, between May and August it was closer to 4 GW. Thankfully these calmer months saw longer hours of daylight, allowing solar power to compensate.

Read the full article here: Wind power grows 45%


Driving down carbon emissions

The knock-on effect of an increase in renewable generation is a drop in the carbon intensity of electricity production and in 2017 this reached a new low.

Across the year, carbon emissions, including those from imported sources, totalled 72 million tonnes, down 12% from 2016. This decrease is equal to 150 kg of CO2 saved per person, or taking 4.7 million cars off the roads. The least carbon intensive period of the quarter came just after midnight in the early hours of Monday 2 October, when it measured a record low of 56 grammes per kilowatt hour (g/kWh) thanks to low fossil fuel generation and high levels of renewables.

Over the whole year there were 139 hours when carbon intensity dipped below 100 g/kWh. This generally required 50% of the electricity mix to come from renewable sources and demand to be lower than 30 GW. For carbon intensity to dip under 100 g/kWh on a more permanent basis, greater renewable capacity will be required as demand rises.

Read the full article here: Carbon emissions down 12%


Interconnectors meeting future demand

Electricity demand in Great Britain has been on the decline since 2002, primarily due to more efficient buildings and appliances, and a decline in heavy manufacturing. However, this is expected to change over the coming years as more electric vehicles are introduced and the heating system is electrified to help meet 2050 carbon emissions targets.

While installing greater renewable capacity will be crucial in meeting this demand with low-carbon power, interconnectors will also play a significant role, particularly from France, which boasts a large nuclear (and low-carbon) capacity.

However, electricity sales through interconnectors are often based on day-ahead prices rather than the live market, which can lead to trades that aren’t reflective of demand on each sides of the channel.

In Q4 there were eight half-hours when demand was very high (more than 50 GW), yet power was being exported. This occurred despite day-ahead prices suggesting traders would lose money due to lower demand in France and the cost of using the interconnector. It highlights the need for improvements in inter-network trading as Great Britain increases its intermittent renewable generation and looks to a greater reliance on importing and exporting power.

Read the full article here: Moving electricity across the channel


Great Britain’s electricity system continues to break its renewable records each year and heading into 2018 this is likely to continue. Wind and solar power will continue to grow as more installations come online and a fourth coal unit at Drax will be upgraded to sustainable biomass, which could lead to another breakthrough year. Regardless, 2017 will be a tough one to beat.

Explore the data in detail by visiting ElectricInsights.co.uk

Commissioned by Drax, Electric Insights is produced independently by a team of academics from Imperial College London, led by Dr Iain Staffell and facilitated by the College’s consultancy company – Imperial Consultants.

The history of the pylon

Pylons are one of the most recognisable and perhaps divisive symbols of Great Britain’s electricity system.

There are plenty who decry these metal giants as blotches strung across the country’s green and pleasant landscape. But time has turned the 1930s designs of Great Britain’s pylons into something of a modernist classic, even beloved by some.

What pylons symbolise, however, is more than just the modernisation of the country in the first half of the 20th century. They also represent the promise of safe and reliable electricity for all. There are now more than 90,000 pylons across Great Britain and while the energy system continues to evolve, pylons have changed little since they first went up outside Edinburgh in the 1920s. 

Miesbach to Munich

The first successful attempt to transmit electricity over long distances using overhead wires took place in 1882. German engineer Oskar von Miller and his French colleague Marcel Deprez successfully transmitted 2.5 kilowatts of electricity 57km along a telegraph line.

The simple iron line transmitted a 200 volt current from a steam engine-powered generator near Miesbach to the glass palace of Munich, where it was used to power the motor for an artificial waterfall. The line failed a few days later, and even though it may be a world away from today’s 800,000 volt ultra-high voltage transmission lines, this first trial laid the foundation for the way we move energy today.

Egypt to Edinburgh

Jump to 1928 and there was something new arising on Edinburgh’s horizon. The first “grid tower” was erected here on July 14th as part of the recently established Central Electricity Board’s ambitious project to create a “national gridiron”.

Connecting 122 of Great Britain’s most efficient power stations to consumers was a mission that required 4,000 miles of cables, mostly overhead. Sir Reginald Blomfield was called in to tackle this grand challenge.

Blomfield adopted a design submitted by the American firm Milliken Brothers for the “grid towers” that would criss-cross the country. A staunch anti-modernist – as he made clear in Modernismus, his attack on modern architecture – Blomfield looked to ancient Egypt to name his steel towers.

In Egyptology, a pylon is a gateway with two monumental towers either side of it. These represented two hills between which the sun rose and set, with rituals to the sun god Ra often carried out on the structures. It was an epic name to match the grand ambitions of creating a national grid.

By September 1933 the last of the initial 26,000 pylons that made up the National Grid were installed, less than a third of the 90,000 that make up the system today. The grid was now ready to operate, on time and on budget.

Around the world to underground

As the energy system continues to evolve Great Britain’s pylons are changing too. In 2015, the National Grid unveiled a new Danish-designed pylon that shifts away from the classic industrial tower to a T-framed ski-lift style model designed to minimise the visual impact of the pylons on the landscape.

Another approach also being adopted is burying cables underground. The process of digging tracts and burying cables for thousands of miles could cost as much as £500 million but could help preserve areas of natural beauty while ensuring the whole country has access to the safe and reliable electricity it has come to expect.

As with all change, these announcements have caused a surge in nostalgia for the pylon remembered from childhood car journeys across the country.

Around the globe electricity pylons are now ubiquitous and are being pushed to new technological limits. In 1993 Greenland became home to the longest stretch of overhead powerline between pylons in the Ameralik Span, while China’s Zhoushan Island Overhead Powerline Tie set the record for the world’s tallest pylons in 2010 with two 370-meter towers.

Despite the advancements, it’s notable how little these structures have changed from the those first installed around the world. The proposed humanoid sculptures of Icelandic architecture firm Choi+Shine bare a resemblance to the original skeletal towers of the 30s. And it shows just how successful those original pylons have been at delivering much-needed electricity to homes and businesses around the country.

What will electricity look like in 2035?

The year is 2035. Cars cruise clean streets without the need for a driver, our household appliances are all connected and communicate with one another, and all of it is powered by electricity – specifically low-carbon electricity.

It’s been 10 years since Great Britain’s last coal power station shut down, and across the country wind turbines are generating more electricity than fossil fuels and nuclear energy combined, pushing carbon emissions to a new low.

This isn’t a vision of a green-minded sci-fi novel, this is the forecast for Great Britain in less than 20 years’ time. This sustainable, low-carbon future of 2035 is a significant evolution from today in 2018 and it comes despite a rising population, a continued shift to urban living and an expected rise in power demand. 

Great Britain gets power hungry

If we transport back to the here and now of the late 2010s, it would be easy to expect electricity demand to drop by 2035. In fact, since 2005 electricity demand has been on a steady decline as a result of more efficient appliances and the decline of heavy industry.

By the mid-2020s, however, this trend is expected to reverse. But with the likelihood that appliances will grow more efficient and no sign of heavy industry coming back to British shores, what will drive this growing demand?

Two of the major contributors will be the electrification of transport and the heating system. With the government setting 2040 as the end date for the sale of diesel and petrol vehicles, preparations are already underway for a fully electrified transport network – but it won’t just be restricted to roads.

Train networks and even potentially planes could switch from fossil fuels to electric, increasing demand from the transport sector by 128% between 2015 and 2035. Electric vehicles (EVs) alone are predicted to add 25 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity demand by 2035, according to a report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. However, this will be dependent on significant investment in the necessary charging infrastructure to enable a decarbonised transport network across the country.

Added to this will be extra demand from a shift in how we heat our homes. If planning goes ahead and pilot projects are completed, low-carbon, electric heating is expected to begin rolling out in the next decade and will involve the phasing out of gas boilers in favour of electric heat pumps. But as with EV adoption, this will require major government investment and incentives to grow electric heating beyond the 7% of UK homes that use it today.

An electrified heat network will add a greater strain on the electricity system, particularly in winter months when demand is high. The result is a forecast increase of 40 GW in demand during peak times – the mornings and the evenings.

These peak times for electricity consumption will be the greatest test for the grid as intermittent renewables meet more and more of the country’s demand. It raises the question: how we will cope with cold, still and dark November evenings? One solution is the growing role of large scale electricity storage.

By 2035 technological advances are expected to bring electricity storage to 8 GW of installed capacity – double the size of Drax, the UK’s biggest power station. It is also likely that the abilities of EVs as electricity suppliers (delivering excess electricity back to the grid once plugged in overnight) will play an increasing role in meeting demand.

But to ensure this is possible, it will require advances in another sector with a great impact on our power system: technology. This is not just about how technology could enable advances, but how much electricity it’s likely to use.

The internet of everything and a smarter grid

By 2035, chip manufacturer ARM predicts there will be more than one trillion internet of things (IoT) devices globally. This smart technology will be able to turn everything from your morning coffee maker to your bed into intelligent machines, gathering masses of data that can be used to optimise and personalise daily life.

Powering all these devices, let alone the vast plains of servers holding all the data they gather, is one of the great challenges for the IoT industry. However, as much as smart devices will demand energy, they will also help save it.

Thanks to smart, connected devices, traffic lights will turn off when there are no cars, offices will turn off lights when there is no one in a room and homes will understand your energy needs better and tailor appliance usage to your habits. At a larger scale, the introduction of artificial intelligence will allow the entire grid to connect and work in harmony with every one of the billions of devices taking energy from it.

A fully-intelligent system like this will allow grid operators to smooth out peaks in demand by, for example, charging EVs overnight when there is less demand. It means that while there will be an overall greater demand for electricity in 2035, the ‘shape’ of demand may differ from the accentuated peaks of the current system.

Renewable reaction to demand

At its heart, the increasing electrification of our transport, utilities and technology has been driven by a few specific goals, one of which is lowering our reliance on fossil fuels and reducing carbon emissions. It’s positive, then, that all projections towards 2035 have us making significant strides towards this vision.

Coal will have been completely removed from the electricity system, while gas generation will drop to just 70.8 TWh – down from the 112.2 TWh expected in 2018, according to Bloomberg’s forecast. In its place, wind will become the greatest source of our electricity producing 138.5 TWh in 2035, up from 52.3 TWh in 2018. The watershed year for wind power will come in 2027 when wind first overtakes gas to become the biggest contributor to the grid thanks to significant increases in capacity.

Nuclear will still play an important role in the energy mix, contributing 45.8 TWh, while solar will more than double in generation from 12 TWh in 2018 to 25 TWh in 2035 – the same amount of power produced by all of California’s solar panels in 2016.

The results of this continued move to lower carbon sources will be significant. Carbon emissions from electricity in 2035 are expected to be 23.81 gCO2/MJ (grammes of carbon dioxide per megajoule) – less than half what is expected in 2018. And while there will be many major changes in the electricity system over the next 17 years, it is this that is perhaps the most important and optimistic.

5 incredible numbers from the world’s largest biomass port

Since its origins the Port of Immingham has held close links with the UK’s rail and energy networks.

It was the Humber Commercial Railway and Dock company, along with the Great Central Railway, that first established the dock, completing it in 1912 to serve its primary purpose of exporting the most important fuel of the time: coal.

Today, Immingham is the UK’s largest port by tonnage, and while these transport connections endure, they’ve changed with the times. The port is now connected to modern rail infrastructure and helps run a renewable energy system.

Immingham is one of a number of UK ports that receives shipments of wood pellets which are used to generate renewable electricity at Drax Power Station in Yorkshire. With 20,000 tonnes of wood pellets arriving at Drax every day, here are the numbers that tell the story of how the port of Immingham keeps more biomass coming in than any other in the world:

£135 million revamping for renewables

The port began to get serious about renewable energy in 2013 when an investment of around £135m kick-started the creation of the Immingham Renewable Fuels Terminal – the largest biomass handling facility in the world.

Developed by the Associated British Ports as part of a 15-year deal with Drax, the revamp of the former coal port saw an update of its unloading, storage, rail and road facilities to make it biomass-ready.

Getting those 60,000 tonnes of biomass pellets from ship to train to Drax requires tight supply chain systems designed especially for this task.

2,300 tonnes of biomass unloaded every hour

A key component of Immingham is its continuous ship unloaders. Replacing the port’s grab cranes in 2013, these two structures use a combination of suction and an Archimedes screw to discharge 2,300 tonnes of biomass an hour from docking ships.

The continuous unloaders are bespoke for Immingham and designed to keep operating at a constant rate as the Humber’s tide rises and falls. Biomass is drawn up through the unloaders to a conveyer that then takes it all the way from the jetty to one of the port’s eight silos.

120 Olympic-sized swimming pools of storage

Unlike coal, which can be stored in the open air, biomass must be kept dry. Immingham stores wood pellets in eight silos, each capable of holding 25,000 tonnes of biomass.

With the port doubling its storage space from four silos in early 2016, the site’s total capacity now comes in at 336,000m3 – the equivalent of more than 120 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Here the biomass can be stored for any time between a couple of days and a couple of months, depending on Drax’s demand.

72 trains heading to Britain’s biggest power station every week

The next leg of the journey for the wood pellets sees them moved along the conveyer to board Drax’s specifically designed trains.

Immingham’s rail facilities and Drax’s train wagons were developed to automate the loading process for maximum efficiency. Trains slow down to half a mile per hour as they enter the loading bay where sensors and magnets open the hatch doors of the wagons and close them when they’re full.

The automation of this process allows a 25-wagon train to be filled in just 37 minutes. In total, 12 trains can pass through each day, meaning the port can send 72 trains to Drax every week.

With each hopper’s full load at 71.6 tonnes of compressed wood pellets, each train can carry between 1,700 and 1,800 tonnes. It takes the total biomass reaching the power station from Immingham to a maximum of 130,000 tonnes each week.

£400 million added to the local economy

Drax’s contribution to the Yorkshire and Humber region includes 3,650 jobs and a £419.2 million economic impact.

This is primarily the result of the impact made by Drax Power Station to the region, however, its support of other businesses along its supply chains means its economic contribution is felt far beyond its Selby site.

In 2016, Drax indirectly supported 1,800 jobs in Yorkshire and the Humber region at facilities such as Immingham. Its indirect economic contribution came to £117 million, as the region’s biomass industry became increasingly important.

Find out about another major UK port that has been transformed thanks to renewable energy. How does biomass get shipped to the UK? Read the story of one of the US ports sending wood pellets to UK shores.

The wooden buildings of the future

Wooden building with blue sky background

When we think of modern cities and the buildings within them, we often think of the materials they’re constructed from – we think of the concrete jungle.

Since the 19th century, steel, glass and concrete enabled the building of bigger and more elaborate buildings in rapidly-growing cities, and those materials quickly came to define the structures themselves. But today that could be changing.

New technologies and building techniques mean wood, a material humans have used in construction for millennia, is making a comeback and reducing the carbon footprint of our buildings too.

Return of the treehouse

Civilisation has been building structures from wood for longer than you may realise.

Horyu-ji Temple in Nara, Japan

The 32-metre tall Pagoda of Horyu-Ji temple in Japan, was built using wood felled in 594 and still stands today. The Sakyumuni Pagoda of Fogong Temple in China is nearly twice as tall with a height of 67 metres. It was built in 1056.

Today, wood is once again finding favour.

The 30-metre tall Wood Innovation and Design Centre of the University of British Columbia (UNBC) in Canada was completed in October 2014 and is among the first of this new generation of wooden buildings. And they’re only getting bigger.

This year, the completion of the 84-metre, 24-storey HoHo Tower in Vienna will make it the tallest wooden building in the world. But this will be far surpassed if plans for the Oakwood Tower in London are approved. Designed by a private architecture firm and researchers from the University of Cambridge, the proposed building will be 300-metres tall if construction goes ahead, making it London’s second tallest structure after The Shard. And it would be made of wood.

Falling back in love with wood

Wood construction fell out of favour in the 19th century when materials like steel and concrete, became more readily available. But new developments in timber manufacturing are changing this.

Researchers in Graz, Austria, discovered that by gluing strips of wood with their grains at right angles to each other the relative weakness of each piece of wood is compensated. The result is a wood product known as cross-laminated timber (CLT), which is tougher than steel for its weight but is much lighter and can be machined into extremely precise shapes. Think of it as the plywood of the future, allowing construction workers to build bigger, quicker and lighter.

Glued laminated timber, commonly known as glulam, is another technology technique enabling greater use of wood in more complex construction. Manufactured by bonding high-strength timbers with waterproof adhesives, glulam can also be shaped into curves and arches, pushing wood’s usage beyond straight planks and beam.

These dense timbers don’t ignite easily either. They are designed to act more like logs than kindling, and feature an outer layer that is purposefully designed to char when exposed to flame, which in turn insulates the inner wood.

Susceptibility to mould, insect and water damage is indeed a concern of anyone building with wood, but as the centuries-old Pagodas in Japan and China demonstrate, care for wood properly and there’s no real limit to how long you can make it last.

So, wood is sturdy. But so is steel – why change?

Green giant

Construction with concrete and steel produces an enormous carbon footprint. Concrete production on its own accounts for 5% of all our carbon emissions. But building with wood can change that. UNBC’s Innovation and Design centre saved 400 tonnes of carbon by using wood instead of concrete and steel.

On top of that, building with wood ‘freezes’ the carbon captured by the trees as they grow. When trees die naturally in the forest they decompose and release the carbon they have absorbed during growth back in the atmosphere. But wood felled and used to construct a building has captured that carbon for as long as it stands in place. A city of wooden buildings could be a considerable carbon sink.

This can have further ripple effects. The more timber is required for construction, the more it increases the market for wood and the responsibly-managed forests that material comes from. And the more forests that are planted, and managed with proper governance, the more carbon is absorbed from the atmosphere.

According to research from Yale university, a worldwide switch to timber construction would, on its own, cut the building industry’s carbon emissions by 31%.

Granted, that will be a difficult task. But if even a fraction of that can be achieved, it could mean a future of timber buildings and greener cities.

Going off grid: The companies generating their own energy

The residents of Cupertino, California are getting used to their new space-aged neighbour. In this Silicon Valley city, a sleek, doughnut-shaped flying saucer sits on a hillside, overlooking the population. But this is no extra-terrestrial. This is the new home of Cupertino’s most-famous inhabitant: Apple.

The so-called Apple Campus 2 ‘spaceship’ has caused a stir since it opened this year. With its abundance of trees, 100,000 square-foot wellness centre, revolutionary chairs and specially designed pizza boxes, it aims to be, as the late Steve Jobs declared it, “the best office building in the world.”

But there’s also something interesting going on outside the building where women and men think up the next iPhone. Around the 175-acre campus sits 805,000 square-feet of solar arrays. The 17 megawatts (MW) of solar panels on the spaceship’s roof and 4 MW of fuel cell storage will provide 75% of the building’s daytime electricity, with the rest coming from a nearby 130 MW solar farm.

The aim is to not only power operations with renewable energy, but to do so with self-generated renewable energy – and Apple aren’t alone in this endeavour.

Driven by a need to operate more cleanly and enabled by increasingly accessible renewable energy technologies, many companies are now pursuing their own energy independence. Could we soon see the first entirely off-grid multinational?

Going off grid

Think of IKEA and you might think of long afternoons wrestling woodwork and Allen keys – what you don’t think of is wind turbines. However, the Swedish retailer, which boasts 355 locations across 29 countries, recently saw the number of wind turbines it owns exceed the number of stores. By 2020 it aims to generate more renewable energy than it uses worldwide – something it’s already achieved in the Nordics and Canada.

IKEA isn’t the only retailer exploring innovative energy models. US shopping and leisure mall giants Target and Walmart, which count almost 7,000 locations between them, are also looking to self-generate renewable energy at mass scale.

Making use of the space available at their massive stores, the retailers are looking to rooftop solar systems to power their efforts to reach 100% renewable energy. At the end of last year Target was the US’ leading corporate solar installer with 147.5 MW of capacity, followed by Walmart with 145 MW.

Unsurprisingly, the tech industry is making a big push towards self-supply or sourcing power from 100% renewable generators. This is largely down to just how much electricity they use, particularly when it comes to things like data centres.

Estimated by some to become the largest users of electrical power on the planet by the 2020s, datacentres house hundreds of rows of servers that remotely store and process internet and mobile data from around the world. They are the physical footprint of our digital, cloud computing age and already they’re estimated to use roughly 3% of the global electricity supply.

One big user of datacentres — crypto currency Blockchain — is projected by 2020 to use about the same amount of power each year as Denmark.

Microsoft has tackled its datacentre demand by both developing in-house generation capabilities and by partnering with local utilities suppliers to source renewable energy for their centres. Not only does this make operations cleaner, but the independence can also increase the reliability of their power supplies, which are often backed up by batteries.

There are other obvious benefits for companies going energy-independent – one being the PR boost. But there is also a significant bottom line benefit, even for partly self-generating organisations. In the first half of 2017 Thames Water cut £12 million from its annual energy bills by producing 23% of its own electricity.

Biomass domes

While solar and wind made up part of this, the water management company generated much of the 146 GWh it produced through biogas made from its own sewage management facilities. The power it didn’t generate itself was sourced from Haven Power in the form of renewable biomass electricity.

What it means for the grid

The cynical view may be one that says energy independence is a further step towards entirely independent and unregulated multinationals, but there are signs it can benefit the wider population too.

Some self-generation operations can feed electricity back into the grid, serving as a backup resource at times of high demand. This idea of ‘prosuming’ (both producing and consuming electricity) is growing outside of big businesses in the residential space. With the rise of electric vehicles and their potential to store and feed power back to the grid, it is one likely to grow even further, and big companies are taking note.

Microsoft points to its Cheyenne, Wyoming-based data centre as an example of this. Local utility Black Hills Energy (which it has partnered with to source renewable power) has the ability to draw from the datacentre’s normally dormant backup generators in times of need.

In the UK, this is happening on a smaller scale. Hamerton Zoo Park, in Cambridgeshire, generates its own onsite wind, solar and biomass power, making it the most ‘environmentally friendly zoo in Europe’. Excess power not used on site is then sold back to the grid through Opus Energy, generating extra revenue for the zoo and contributing to overall grid supply.

Even with growing numbers of prosuming and energy-independent companies, however, there will still be a need for grid-stabilising services provided by large scale generators. Companies perform well when they focus on their core business. Partnering with energy suppliers to help them manage their electricity – including their self-generated power – can make sense. But what increasing levels of distributed renewable energy generation offers is the potential to reduce usage of fossil fuels at a countrywide level.

Coordinating the give and take of this energy across the entire system will take significant effort, but smart technologies and improving storage will help grids and energy-independent companies work together to make the whole system cleaner.

Can electricity power heavy-duty vehicles?

On a blacked-out stage, a blast of white light appears. Smoke floods out, music blares and an excited crowd surges forward, smartphones held aloft. It’s a moment of rapture – but this is not a theatrical or musical performance. This is the launch of an electric car.

Specifically, the launch of Tesla’s new electric roadster – which claims to be the fastest production car ever made. And while the sportscar may have been the undoubted star of the event, it wasn’t the only one unveiled. Tesla also launched an electric-powered articulated lorry – the Semi.

With governments around the world setting ambitious plans to ban the sale of petrol-and-diesel-only cars, the introduction of electric-powered utility vehicles – like Tesla’s truck – in a range of industries will be essential to a truly decarbonised transport system.

Disrupting trucking

Tesla’s heavy goods vehicle (HGV) highlights the growing capabilities of electric vehicles (EVs) to deliver more than just short, urban journeys. It claims its Semi will be able to travel 500 miles on a single charge (enough to get you from London to Edinburgh comfortably) and tow 40 tonnes of cargo.

Tesla isn’t the only player with electric big rig concepts – Los Angeles-based Thor Trucks, Daimler and Volkswagen have unveiled their own – but its ambitious 2019 production target makes it a more immediate possibility than any other in the space.

Despite media coverage claiming the Semi’s mega-charging capability breaks the laws of physics, big business is taking a sunny view of Elon Musk’s latest innovation. Walmart, which has been taking strides to reduce its emissions, has already pre-ordered 15 of the Semis. Delivery firm UPS has used small electric trucks in major cities for some years already – it has placed the largest order so far, for 125.

Electrifying emergency response

In the world of emergency services, quick response is vital. EVs, then, which have fast acceleration and are quick off the mark, are ideal candidates to deliver – especially as battery technology becomes more reliable and durable.

Health services in Nottingham have already been trialling electric-powered fast response vehicles, while in Japan, Nissan has unveiled an all-electric ambulance that carries a lithium-ion auxiliary battery to power medical equipment on board.

This on-board power supply is a further advantage of EVs, and one not just restricted to emergency services. Electric pickup truck maker Havelaar, for example, offers power outlets on its Bison vehicle for electric tools.

The future of battery farming

Out in the countryside, EVs are making waves in farming. John Deere has unveiled plans for fully electric tractors, claiming they require less maintenance and have a longer lifecycle than combustion engines.

With more than a third of UK farms generating their own power from solar, wind and even anaerobic digestion using farm by-products, there’s potential for farmers to charge tractors renewably and cut their fuel and charging costs.

More than just helping cut emissions and costs, there can also be performance benefits. Given their acceleration abilities, electric tractors are well suited to heavy pulling without revving up engines and churning up ground.

Joining HGVs and tractors in their ability to apply almost instant torque to heavy industrial jobs are e-Dumper trucks. The Komatsu quarry truck weighs in at almost 45 tonnes and claims to be the biggest EV in the world.

The economic advantage of electrification

Air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are the main driving force behind many anti-fossil fuel regulations. However, research suggests decarbonising transport systems also have economic advantages for businesses.

A report by financial services firm Hitachi Capital found that switching vans and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) to electric or other alternative fuels could save British businesses as much as £14 billion a year.

It claims EVs run at 13p cheaper per mile than diesel-fuelled vans, while HGVs are reported to be 38p cheaper. That adds up to total savings of £13.7 billion a year if all Britain’s commercial vehicles were switched.

The move to a fully electrified transport system is already underway. The number of registered electric cars increased by 280% in the UK over the past four years, according to the Hitachi report. The Chinese city of Shenzhen’s entire fleet of 16,359 buses has gone electric – a transition that began in 2009 and has been assisted by an 80% drop in the cost of a lithium-ion battery pack. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, China’s need for electric bus batteries is almost on a par to that of all global EV battery demand. China could be said to be driving the market.

EVs are undoubtedly cleaner when it comes to road-side pollution. However, the exponential increase in EVs will only benefit the fight against man made climate change if countries’ entire energy systems continue to decarbonise. Emissions-free vehicles will need to be powered predominantly by low carbon electricity for a more electric future to be a sustainable one.