Author: Dorothy Thompson

Chief Executive comments on half year results

We have made good progress with our strategy during the first half of 2017, acquiring Opus Energy and a third compressed wood pellet plant, in addition to refinancing and implementing a new dividend policy.

Central to our strategy is the delivery of targeted growth through deploying our expertise across our markets and, in so doing, diversifying, growing and improving the quality of earnings whilst reducing exposure to commodity market volatility.

Delivering reliable renewable electricity remains at the heart of our business. We continue to produce at record levels, helping to keep the UK’s electricity system secure and supplying our customers through our retail business. With the right conditions, we can do even more. We are progressing our four new rapid response gas power projects and our research and innovation work has identified potentially attractive options to repurpose our remaining coal assets.

We continue to play a vital role in the UK’s energy infrastructure and our strategy is helping to change the way energy is generated, supplied and used for a better future.

Related documents:


Chief Executive comments on capital markets event and trading update

Britain’s energy market is changing. Drax has embraced these changes with a strategy which will help change the way energy is generated, supplied and used for a better future.

Through our operations in retail, generation and biomass supply we expect to deliver a significant increase in high quality, visible, contracted earnings for the Group.

With the optimisation of our existing asset portfolio combined with acquisitions across our markets the strategy is already delivering, allowing the Group to create long-term opportunities in all areas of the business.

We are confident in the strategy and our ability to deliver high quality earnings, growth and value for shareholders, supported by a strong financial model and clear capital allocation policy, including a sustainable dividend that we expect to grow from a level of £50m in 2017.

Further information:

Capital markets day and trading update

Image: Artist’s impression of a Drax rapid-response gas power station with planning permission

Chief Executive comments on full year results

We are playing a vital role in helping change the way energy is generated, supplied and used as the UK moves to a low carbon future.

With the right conditions, we can do even more, converting further units to run on compressed wood pellets. This is the fastest and most reliable way to support the UK’s decarbonisation targets, whilst minimising the cost to households and businesses.

In a challenging commodity environment Drax has delivered a good operational performance with 65% renewable power generation.


The acquisition of Opus Energy and rapid response open cycle gas turbine projects are an important step in delivering our strategy, diversifying our earnings base and contributing to stronger, long-term financial performance across the markets in which we operate.

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Retooling for a post-coal future

The energy system in Great Britain is dramatically changing. Where it was once an industry dominated by coal, a predictable but dirty fuel, now our power increasingly comes from renewables. This is a trend that will continue, forcing more coal off the system.

Drax has a role in this new future of renewable power. We have already converted half of our power station in North Yorkshire to run on renewable biomass, and now, to support the needs of a system increasingly dominated by intermittent renewables like solar and wind, we are developing plans to build four new state-of-the-art flexible power stations – two in England and two in Wales.

Each will be 299 MW in size and powered by gas. Two of them could be producing electricity by 2020. It’s the next step for us in helping change the way energy is generated for a better future.


Supporting a renewable energy mix

Wind and solar accounted for 15% of Britain’s electricity mix between July and September from an installed capacity that has increased six fold in just six years. Biomass generation at Drax rose from almost nothing to producing 20% the country’s renewable power in the first half of this year. Renewable energy has come on leaps and bounds this decade – perhaps more than anyone ever thought it would.

But as well as being much lower in carbon emissions, renewables like wind and solar operate very differently to the fuels the GB Grid was built on – they’re intermittent. They only work when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. So when it suddenly becomes still or dark, we need alternatives that plug the gap, deliver power and boost security of supply.

Biomass is one part of how we can do this using lower carbon fuels. Compressed wood pellets (the biomass used at Drax) is a renewable fuel that can be used to generate baseload power that can also be dialled up and down to meet demand. Like coal, it can also provide the ancillary services the Grid needs to stay stable.

Unlike combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power plants, which currently supply roughly 40% of the UK’s power and take 1.5 hours to start up from cold, our new open cycle gas turbine (OCGT) plants are like big jet engines – generating electricity at full power in just 20 minutes from cold or 10 minutes from a warm standby. It’s an incredibly fast turnaround and it’s what the energy network needs.

And because it’s a lower carbon fuel than coal with higher flexibility it will support the UK’s decarbonisation targets – by enabling more wind and solar on the Grid. We plan to use OCGTs to plug the gaps that intermittency creates – essentially flicking the switch on and off at very short notice. We anticipate they would run for no more than 1,500 hours per year – only at times when the electricity system is under stress. Through supporting more intermittent renewables we also help to enable more coal off the system.

A better future for customers

This new future will not only mean changes for us, the generators, but for customers, too.

How energy is supplied and used is evolving, and this is something that Drax can support with the growing retail side of our business.

We’re a company with a wealth of expertise in renewable power and we can use this to help deliver electricity to business customers in a way that caters for today’s market. We’re already doing this with Haven Power, but now we’re extending this with the acquisition of Opus Energy. With this new company as part of Drax Group we will be able to grow our existing retail offering, providing more of the UK’s growing businesses and established industrial and corporates not only with electricity, but also with gas. Our retail offering will provide businesses with a route to sell the power they generate but do not need – plus expertise in how they can use energy more efficiently.


These are the first steps in a new chapter for Drax. There will be more research and development to come. In the future we’ll be looking at how we can extend our American compressed wood pellet supply business, Drax Biomass, and at the potential for power storage systems.

If we want to continue to be a truly modern energy company that delivers on our aim of changing the way energy is generated, supplied and used for a better future, we need to be able to adapt. It’s always been a part of Drax’s history and it will be a part of our future.

Hinkley may be an important milestone, but it’s no silver bullet to the UK’s energy challenges

In September, the Prime Minister gave the go-ahead for the construction of two new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset, setting in motion the process for what could be the biggest and most expensive nuclear power station ever built.

While this monumental decision will provide some long overdue clarity for Britain’s energy sector, it has dangerously diverted the attention from a far bigger energy challenge facing the UK – replacing the contribution currently made by coal.

In November last year the Government made a commitment that the UK must stop generating power from coal by 2025. For the sake of future generations, this was the right decision to take – coal is, after all, a fossil fuel of the past that’s damaging the environment. However, it still provides up to one fifth of the UK’s electricity, and plugging that gap will be far from easy. Doing so in a way that allows the country to meet its carbon targets while supporting technologies that will deliver a modern energy system fit for the 21st century only adds to this challenge.

Hinkley Point C will play an important role in the future energy mix, but let’s be clear – it’s no silver bullet.

When finally complete, Hinkley Point C is expected to provide seven percent of the UK’s electricity – less than a third of what is needed to replace coal. What’s more, this new generation isn’t even expected to come ‘on grid’ much before 2030, by which point all but one of the UK’s operating nuclear reactors, which provide around 20% of the UK’s current needs, are scheduled to close.

In short, Hinkley will be replacing lost nuclear capacity, and nowhere near all of it, rather than providing the ‘new’ energy we desperately need to plug the gap the end of coal will create. This raises the question – what can replace outgoing coal in the necessary timescale?

While we have seen a huge and welcome expansion in renewable sources of generation like wind and solar in the UK, they are intermittent so cannot fill the void alone; they still need to be supported by a constant supply of electricity that can be flexed up and down when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine – a regular scenario on these shores.

Gas and nuclear will form part of the solution, but as we’ve seen with Hinkley, planning, funding and building new power stations can be a long and costly process – it took over a decade to reach the decision on Hinkley Point. Gas fired power stations can be up and running far quicker, but obviously planning and approval are still required, and only a handful have been built in the last 10 years.

Alternative technologies – like small modular nuclear reactors and electricity storage – held in some quarters as the answer, certainly hold potential. However, the reality is they aren’t yet fit for purpose at scale and will need much more research and development and in some cases regulatory approval, before they become viable.

Dorothy Thompson

Dorothy Thompson, CEO, Drax Group

Time, unfortunately, is not a luxury we have. This year alone, more than six gigawatts (GW) of coal power generation could come off grid – almost twice the generating capacity of Hinkley Point. Every day lost adds to the cost and complexity of addressing the challenge we face – making a solution less likely.

A recognised, cost-effective renewable option does exist though, but it is often unmentioned in the debate – it’s called biomass.

Using the latest technology at Drax Power Station we have upgraded half of the coal facilities to generate electricity using sustainable compressed wood pellets instead of coal. Since this re-uses existing coal infrastructure, it’s quicker and more efficient than building new power stations, while also providing a reliable and flexible flow of electricity that can help the UK meet its carbon targets. The compressed wood pellets we use, for example, perform in much the same way as coal but deliver a more than 80% CO2 saving.

This solution is proven and ready to go. Already Drax’s facility is powering more than three million homes and delivering 20% of the UK’s renewable electricity, making it the biggest single site renewable generator in the country. Drax can go further though, with the right government support and a level-playing field, delivered via technology-neutral auctions for energy contracts.

With all six Drax generation units converted plus Lynemouth power station – which already has that future secured – and one or two other, smaller biomass power stations, around 10% of the UK’s electricity could be generated using this technology well before 2025.

Finding the right mix of power generation will not be easy, but it is important to make every effort to get it right.

Like Hinkley Point C, biomass is no silver bullet, but it is ideally placed to play an even greater role in helping the country transform to a low-carbon future.

Mind the gap

Later today the EDF Board is expected to give the go-ahead for a new nuclear power station at Hinkley. This will provide some long overdue clarity for Britain’s energy sector, but we now need to quickly move on and make the right decisions to secure the best mix of power generation.  The drawn out debate around Hinkley Point C has diverted attention away from the sector’s biggest challenge.

The Government has made it clear that coal must come off the system by 2025.  But coal still provides up to one fifth of the UK’s electricity, and plugging that gap will be far from easy.  Nor will doing so in a way that allows the country to meet its carbon targets while supporting the technologies that will deliver a modern energy system fit for the 21st century. The Government’s intention is absolutely right, but how does it intend to meet its target?

Let’s be clear, a positive Hinkley Point C decision will play an important role in the necessary energy mix but will provide no silver bullet. By most estimates, when finally complete, the nuclear plant will provide seven percent of the UK’s electricity needs.  However, this isn’t expected to come ‘on grid’ much before 2030, and let’s remember that in 2030 all but one of the UK’s current operating nuclear reactors are scheduled to be closed. Hinkley will therefore be replacing only some of the lost nuclear capacity, not providing ‘new’ energy to replace coal.

The last few years have seen a huge and welcome expansion in renewable sources of generation like wind and solar in the UK, but they are intermittent and cannot fill the gap alone. They still need to be supported by a constant supply of electricity that can be flexed up and down when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine – a regular scenario on these shores.

As a form of low-carbon baseload generation, nuclear will undoubtedly be part of the answer. However, as we’ve already seen with Hinkley Point C, planning, funding and building new power stations can be a long and costly process. It has taken over a decade to reach today’s decision. In the past year alone, more than 5 gigawatts (GW) of coal power generation– Hinkley Point C is set to provide 3.2 GW – has come off grid well before the Government’s target of 2025. We don’t have the luxury of time: every day lost adds to the cost of addressing this challenge.

Gas will play a role but many, including the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) have pointed out the huge number of gas-fired power stations we’ll need to plug the gap that ending coal creates. IMechE estimates 30 will be required which is clearly unrealistic, since the UK has built just four in the last 10 years.

At Drax, we have developed a solution to these challenges. We have used state of the art technology to upgrade some of our coal facilities to generate electricity from biomass in place of coal.  These facilities are already providing a reliable and flexible flow of electricity that also helps the UK meet its carbon targets.  The biomass we use is compressed wood pellets which perform in much the same way as coal and deliver an 80% CO2 saving.

Our biomass facilities are already powering three million homes and with the right support we can double this, helping to plug the energy gap that old plant coming off and delays to new build will leave us with.

Using biomass is more cost-effective than other renewables. This was illustrated by a recent study from Imperial College and economic consultancy NERA when they analysed the hidden costs of the back-up needed to meet demand created by intermittent renewables. Our biomass facilities can provide all of the electricity services required to keep the UK electricity system stable. Providing these services is set to become increasingly important in the years ahead as a greater need to back-up and balance the system will be required.

Finding the right mix of power generation will not be easy, but it is important we make every effort to get it right. Like Hinkley Point C, biomass is not a silver bullet, but it can and must play its part in helping the country transform to a low-carbon future.

My four principles of leadership

1. Have vision  

The first task of any leader is to have the vision for the future of their organisation. This doesn’t mean creating it on his or her own. It means that a leader needs to be ready to challenge assumptions, embrace change, have courage and be brave when necessary.

When I think about this I’m reminded of the challenges we faced when we decided to upgrade our power station in Yorkshire to use compressed wood pellets instead of coal .

In delivering this strategy, we faced three major hurdles:

  • Nobody had ever done it before.  There was no technical solution readily available. We had to create one ourselves using our own engineering know-how.
  • There was no supply chain for the compressed wood pellets. We would need to build our own.
  • Civil servants doubted we could deliver it and regardless, there was no Government support for our vision.

Because we had been so thorough, I knew that we had our facts right. In particular, I was certain that we could produce the same amount of electricity while cutting carbon by 80 per cent.

The only logical conclusion was to drive forward. It would never have happened if we hadn’t been confident about our vision.

I’m particularly proud of the way Drax engineers have developed a world-leading technology to transform the way the UK’s largest power station works without any interruption to supply. In 2015, we generated 7.9% of the UK’s electricity or 26.7 TWh from the one single site in North Yorkshire, according to data in our annual report and from the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC). That included 11.5 TWh of compressed wood pellet power – equal to around 13% of the UK’s total renewable electricity (up from 12% a year earlier) or enough to meet the needs of around three million homes (one in every 10 in the country). From the fourth quarter of 2015, we began generating more electricity from sustainable biomass than from coal.

There’s still a long way to go – at least three years if not more – before we can say our work is done, but it’s already a massive achievement.

2. Always be open and approachable

Everyone in your organisation needs to understand what you’re seeking to achieve and why.

For me, being open is also about being honest, approachable and interested in other views. Not just as an individual, but as an entire organisation. As President Obama said while addressing young people on his recent visit to the UK:

“Seek out people who don’t agree with you, and it will also help you to compromise.”

In some instances you need to push forward, while in others you need to compromise. That means a leader needs to trust in their vision while being open to challenges.

At Drax, we know our employees have integrity and can be trusted. At all levels, people need to have highly sensitive information to do their job. This can be a very challenging issue for a company listed on the London Stock Exchange, where a leak could do very serious damage indeed.

When we first listed in 2005, this led to boardroom disagreement. On one side, directors wanted to restrict information to a minimum because they felt this was the best way to limit risk.

As Chief Executive, I strongly disagreed with this. Obviously some things need to be kept confidential, but I really believe that it is important for a leader to be open. In fact, I think one of the key strengths of the Group is our open and frank culture. We have never suffered a significant leak in my time in charge.

3. Together we’re stronger 

A leader’s role is not to take all the decisions. Leadership is about getting the best out of everyone around you. That includes the team you work with on a day-to-day basis, the wider team across the whole organisation, and all your stakeholders.

You never know in advance where the best idea is going to come from. If you’re recruitment is right, you’re surrounded by highly qualified experts.

At Drax, I encourage colleagues to have their say. I am surrounded by people who are willing and able to challenge my views and those of my colleagues on our Executive Committee. I would be silly not to listen to them. We all are more engaged when we’re involved in finding the solution to a problem than when we’re merely dictated to.

Central business district, Gaborone, Botswana

4. Drive the future  

No leader can wait for events to unfold. You have to drive your organisation forward in order to shape its future. In my opinion, indecision is the worst decision of all.

In my 20s I worked for the National Development Bank of Botswana in Gaborone. The bank provided farmers with short- term loans to buy seed to grow their crops.

One day a farmer who was clearly very poor turned up to see the loan officer who shared an office with me. He hadn’t received his loan, because the loan officer hadn’t processed his application in time. So there were no seeds to plant and no crops for the next season.

For years I blamed the loan officer for the farmer’s misfortune. However, from my practical experience as a leader, I now know better. The loan officer’s manager, who was afraid to reprimand him because he came from a privileged local family, should have had more courage. Because they couldn’t decide how to handle the situation, the company and the community it served suffered. Leadership is not an exact science and nothing can compare to experience.

For the sake of future generations, the world needs to urgently move away from coal. Unlike the manager in Gaborone who jeopardised a farmer’s future, my Drax colleagues and I know our leadership is driving the future towards the decarbonisation of our economy.

Sustainable Biomass Program – proving biomass is sustainable

I was honoured to be able to accept the Excellence in Bioenergy award recently. Not for myself, but on behalf of all my colleagues at Drax who have worked so hard to make a reality of our shared plan to generate reliable, renewable electricity. Our achievements are truly a team effort.

In 2015, Drax became a predominantly biomass-fuelled power station.

We now generate more electricity at Drax power station from compressed low-grade wood pellets than from coal – between three and four per cent of the UK’s entire demand every day.

It’s a major triumph for all the brilliant engineers involved in converting the plant and everyone who has helped secure the incredibly complex supply chain that keeps it running.

But we truly believe that this is only the beginning for sustainable biomass.

Sustainable biomass is the ideal fuel to help the world decarbonise in an affordable and reliable way. It can support other renewables like wind and solar when the elements are against them and backup power is needed.

Because it can be created by upgrading existing coal-fired power stations, it can be added to the electricity grid in a fraction of the time and for a fraction of the cost of building new power stations. Why should the UK only build brand-new gas and nuclear power stations when existing coal power stations can be upgraded to low carbon, renewable tech? At Drax, we have shown how engineers working at what once was the biggest coal power station in western Europe can use their expertise to work with compressed wood pellet power generation.

And it can save bill payers billions of pounds when the true costs of bringing other renewables on stream are taken into account.

The industry’s greatest challenge right now is in proving that all the biomass we use is truly sustainable.

At Drax we have proven the sustainability of the biomass we use time and time again. But we can and will do more to ensure that standards right across the industry are always equally high.

We cannot underestimate the importance of sustainability. No corners can be cut. We must all join together and meet this challenge. Because without sustainable biomass there will be no industry at all. Without sustainable biomass in a balanced energy system with other renewables and low carbon technologies, the Paris climate change summit commitments may not be reached.

This is why the Sustainable Biomass Program is so important. The SBP has developed a certification framework  to provide assurance that woody biomass is sourced from legal and sustainable sources.

By working with the SBP, all of us in the industry alongside hard working families and businesses stand to benefit. Which is why all of us at Drax welcome its inception, and look forward to working with the SBP to help build a growing and healthy industry that helps our society transition to the renewable fuels of the future.

May 2017 update: the SBP has changed its name to the Sustainable Biomass Program — you can read its first annual report here.

We can make a difference in 2016 and beyond

Today we released our financial results for 2015.  I’ll be the first to admit that they are not good.  What makes it all the more painful is that one of the strongest operational performances the business has achieved in the last decade, was more than wiped out by factors well outside of our control.

Let’s be frank, for any business operating in the UK energy market 2015 was a tough year. The deterioration in the commodity markets were some of the most severe I have seen in my career. This was then accompanied by a series of unexpected regulatory announcements which caused many to question the UK governments commitment to decarbonisation.

Like any CEO on results day I have spent this morning speaking to investors, journalists and financial analysts. Instead of focusing too much on what hasn’t gone our way in 2015, I’ve focused on where I think we can make a difference in 2016 and beyond, and I’ve been pleased with their positive reaction.

The affordable way to end coal

In November Amber Rudd announced the government’s proposal to consult on setting a clear end date for coal of March 2025. Given it still provides around 25% of the country’s electricity this is an ambitious target. Part of the solution is new nuclear and gas. But as a recent report by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers noted, the country will find it very hard to build enough new facilities to replace coal capacity in time.

Instead of having to take all the existing coal power stations off the grid and build new facilities, the country could use the world leading biomass technology that Drax has pioneered to upgrade some of them to use compressed wood pellets instead of coal. The economic consultancy NERA found that more biomass conversions are one of the most sensible ways for the UK to get off coal at the fairest price to the taxpayer. With the right support we stand ready to convert our remaining coal units to become a fully renewable generator.

Helping society and creating shareholder value

I fundamentally believe that Drax is making a valuable contribution in helping society deal with one of the most pressing issues of our time – cutting carbon emissions to limit climate change. We have an approach which is both affordable and reliable. So long as we remain operationally strong, which I am very confident about, then shareholder value will accrue.

Throughout 2016 and beyond, we will build on our expertise and continue to evaluate a range of longer term strategic options. I lead a strong business that will use the opportunities available to us to create value for our shareholders and help bring about a reliable, renewable future that we can all afford.