Author: Ben Graham

Where does global electricity go next?

Since the Paris Agreement came into effect in November 2016, it’s fair to say many countries have taken up the vital challenge of decarbonisation in earnest.

However, not all are making progress at the same rate. Many are not implementing the agreement at the pace needed to mitigate climate change, and keep the average global temperature increase well below 2oC of pre-industrial levels. Certainly not enough to limit the increase to 1.5oC by 2050, which the majority of climate scientists believe is necessary for the planet is to avoid dire consequences.

Last year even saw renewable energy investment fall 7%, while the money going into fossil fuels grew for the first time since 2014. And data released by the International Energy Agency (IEA) at the beginning of this month’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, found that 2017 was also the first for five years seeing an increase in advanced economies’ carbon emissions.

Despite this, there is much positive work towards decarbonisation.

A new report, Energy Revolution: A Global Outlook, by academics from Imperial College London and E4tech, commissioned by Drax, looks into the core areas and activities required to decarbonise the global energy system – and which countries are performing them to good effect. In doing this, the report also looks at how the UK stands in comparison and what steps countries need to take to truly decarbonise.

Here are the key indicators of decarbonisation and how countries around the world are performing towards them.

Dam in Hardangervidda, Norway

Clean power

At the forefront of reducing emissions and curbing climate change is the need to decarbonise electricity generation and move towards renewable sources.

Last year the global average carbon intensity was 440 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per kilowatt-hour (g/kWh). Out of the 25 major countries the report tracks, 16 came in below average, with seven of these falling under the long-term 50 g/kWh goal.

Leading the rankings are Norway, France and New Zealand, which have a near-zero carbon intensity for electricity generation, thanks to extensive hydro and nuclear power capacity.

At the other end of the table, China, India, Poland and South Africa remain wedded to coal, producing up to twice the global average CO2 for electricity generation. This comes despite China having installed two and a half times more renewables than any other country – it now boasts 600 gigawatts (GW) of renewable capacity.

Per person, Germany is leading the renewablesdrive with almost 1 kW of wind and solar capacity installed per person over the last decade. Despite this, as much as 40% of its electricity still comes from coal.

Part of the challenge in moving away from coal to renewables is economic, as many countries continue to subsidise their coal industries to keep electricity affordable. Phasing out these subsidies is therefore key to switching to a low-carbon generation system. Doing this works, as demonstrated by the example of Denmark, which cut its fossil fuel subsidies by 90% over the past decade, in turn successfully cutting its coal generation by 25%.

The UK’s carbon pricing strategy, which adds £16 per tonne of CO2emitted on top of the price set by the European emissions trading system (EU ETS), has led the carbon intensity of Great Britain’s electricity to more than halve in a decade. It highlights how quickly and effectively these kinds of fees can make fossil fuels uneconomical. Since 2008 the UK has removed more than 250 g/kWh from its electricity production.

Carbon capture and storage

In many future looking climate scenarios, keeping the earth’s temperature below a 2oC increase depends on extensive deployment of carbon capture technology – capturing as much as 100 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. Storing and using carbon is clearly forecast to be a major part of any attempt to meet the Paris Agreement, but at present there are few facilities carrying it out at scale.

Around the world today there are 18 large-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) units running across six countries with a total capacity to capture 32 million tonnes of CO2 per year (MtCO2p.a). Another five facilities are under construction in three countries to add another 7 MtCO2p.a of global capacity. In the UK, Drax Power Station is piloting a bioenergy carbon capture and storage programme that could make it the world’s first negative emissions power station.

The USA has the greatest total installed capacity at 20 MtCO2p.a., but per person it ranks behind Norway, Canada and Australia. Their smaller populations give them more than 200 kg of carbon capture capacity per person per year.

Oil platform off the coast of Australia

These figures are well below the 100 billion tonnes the IEA estimates need to be stored by 2060 to prevent temperatures reaching 2oC more. However, considering the US alone has a potential storage capacity of more than 10 trillion tonnes of CO2, the potential of storage is not expected to be a problem.

Using depleted oil or natural gas fields as storage for captured carbon is being explored in a number of regions, with the US establishing several projects with more than 1 million tonnes in capacity. In 2019, Australia will open the world’s largest CO2store with the capacity to capture between 3.4 million and 4 million tonnes a year from Chevron’s Gorgon gas facility.

Considering the storage capacity available globally, it’s a matter of deploying the necessary technology for CCS to have a significant impact on emissions and global warming. The UK is perhaps a typical example of where CCS is at present with estimated storage capacity of 70 billion tonnes, as much as half of the entire EU combined. By repurposing North Sea oil and gas fields in partnership with Norway, the UK could pool its carbon storage capacity.

Electrification

Electricity generation is one of the main targets for emissions reductions globally. As a result of the progress that’s been made in this field, many future-looking scenarios highlight the important of electrification in other sectors, such as transport, in turn making them less carbon intensive.

Transport is leading the charge globally – there are now 10 different countries where one of every 50 new vehicles sold is electric. In Norway, this ratio is almost one in two, thanks in part to generous tax exemptions as well as non-financial incentives like access to bus lanes and half-price ferries.

Perhaps surprisingly, China is the world’s largest electric vehicle (EV) market. It may still use significant amounts of coal, but its commitment to reducing urban air pollution has seen it push EVs heavily, and it now accounts for 50% of the global battery EV market on its own.

Chinese electric car charging stations

Of course, adoption of EVs requires the supporting infrastructure to be truly successful. In conjunction with its high sales, Norway leads the way in charging points per capita, with one for every 500 people. This compares to one charger for every 5,000 people in the UK and one for every 10,000 people in China.

Electrification also affects the energy intensity of country’s transport systems and while it may be the largest EV market, China’s rise in private vehicles has been largely driven by petrol and diesel models. The result is the largest increases in transport energy intensity and emissions has taken place in China, Indonesia and India, respectively.

Domestic energy intensity is also rising in China, Indonesia and South Africa, as greater numbers of people gain access to appliances and home comforts. Conversely in Europe, Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands have all seen their domestic energy intensity drop in the last decade. However, this may be the lingering effect of the 2008 recession rather than long-term efficiency improvements.

The efficiency of industrial processes is also an important barometer in decarbonisation. Activities like mining and manufacturing require heavy-duty diesel-powered machinery and often coal-powered generators, especially in BRIC nations. The exception is China, where plans to get the 1,000 most energy-intensive companies to reduce their energy consumption per unit of GDP produced by 20% over the last five years, has proved fruitful.

Norway’s heavily-electrified industries, however, are still energy intensive and its level of carbon intensity is vulnerable to fluctuations in power generation prices.

Electrification and reduced emissions require government policies to put in motion behavioural changes that can lead to lasting decarbonisation. Robust carbon pricing is one of the most effective tools to enabling a zero carbon, lower cost energy future,” Drax Group CEO Will Gardiner commented recently.

Welcoming a November report by the Energy Transitions Commission, Gardiner said:

“The cost of inaction far outweighs the cost of doing something now.”

Explore the full report: Energy Revolution: A Global Outlook.

I. Staffell, M. Jansen, A. Chase, E. Cotton and C. Lewis (2018). Energy Revolution: Global Outlook. Drax: Selby.

Drax commissioned independent researchers from Imperial College London and E4tech to write Energy Revolution: A Global Outlook, which looks into the core areas and activities required to achieve decarbonisation – and which countries are performing them to good effect. In doing this it also looks at how the UK stands in comparison and what steps countries need to take to truly decarbonise.

How electricity is made

Every morning we take electricity as a given. We switch on lights, charge phones and boil kettles without thinking about where this power comes from.

The electronic devices and appliances that make up our daily routines are not particularly energy intensive. Boiling a kettle only uses 93 watts, toasting for three minutes only requires 60 watts, while cooking in a microwave for five minutes takes 100 watts.

However, when people are waking up and making breakfast in almost 30 million households around the UK, those small amounts soon create a significant demand for electricity. On a typical winter’s morning, this combined demand spikes to more than 45 gigawatts (GW).

So this is what it takes to power your breakfast – from the everyday toaster in your kitchen backwards through thousands of miles of cables to the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of machinery in wind farms, hydro-electric dams and at power stations such as Drax where electricity generation begins.

The grid 

The journey starts in the home where all our electricity usage is tracked by meters. These are becoming increasingly ‘smart’, displaying near real-time information on energy consumption in financial terms and allowing more accurate billing. There are already 7.7 million smart meters installed around the UK, but that number is set to triple this year, paving the way for a smarter grid overall.

What brings electricity into homes is perhaps the most visible part of the energy system on the UK’s landscape. The transmission system is made up of almost 4,500 miles of overhead electricity lines, nearly 90,000 pylons and 342 substations, all bringing electricity from power stations into our homes.

Making sure all this happens safely and as efficiently as possible falls to the UK’s nine regional electricity networks and National Grid. Regional networks ensure all the equipment is in place and properly maintained to bring electricity safely across the country, while National Grid is tasked with making sure demand for electricity is met and that the entire grid remains balanced.

The station cools down

One of the most distinctive symbols of power generation, cooling towers carry out an important task on a massive scale.

Water plays a crucial role in electricity generation, but before it can be safely returned to the environment it must be cooled. Water enters cooling towers at around 40 degrees Celsius, and is cooled by air naturally pulled into the structure by its unique shape.

This means those plumes exiting from the top of the towers are, rather than any form of pollution, only water vapour. And this accounts for just 2% of the water pumped into the towers.

Drax counts 12 cooling towers, each 114 metres tall – enough to hold the Statue of Liberty with room to spare. Once the water is cooled it is safe to re-enter the nearby River Ouse.

The station’s bird’s-eye view

The control room is the nerve centre of Drax Power Station. From here technicians have a view into every stage of the power generation process.  The entire system controls roughly 100,000 signals from across the power station’s six generating units, water cooling, air compressors and more.

While once this area was made up of analogue dials and controls, it has recently been updated and modernised to include digital interfaces, display screens and workstations specially designed by Drax to enable operators to monitor and adjust activity around the plant.

The heart of power generation 

At the epicentre of electricity generation is Drax’s six turbines. These heavy-duty pieces of equipment do the major work involved in generating electricity.

High-pressure steam drive the blades which rotates the turbine at 3,000 revolutions per minute (rpm). This in turn spins the generator where energy is converted into the electricity that will eventually make it into our homes.

These are rugged pieces of kit operating in extreme conditions of 165 bar of pressure and temperatures of 565 degrees Celsius. Each of the six turbine shaft lines weighs 300 tonnes and is capable of exporting over 600 megawatts (MW) into the grid.

One of the most important parts of the entire process, turbines are carefully maintained to ensure maximum efficiency. Even a slight percentage increase in performance can translate into millions of pounds in savings.

Turning fuel to fire

To create the steam needed to spin turbines at 3,000 rpm, Drax needs to heat up vast amounts of water quickly and this takes a lot of heat.

The power station’s furnaces swirl with clouds of the burning fuel to heat the boiler. Biomass is injected into the furnace in the form of a finely ground powder. This gives the solid fuel the properties of a gas, enabling it to ignite quickly. Additional air is pumped into the boiler to drive further combustion and optimise the fuel’s performance.

Pulveriser

How do you turn hundreds of tonnes of biomass pellets into a powder every day? That’s the task the pulveriser take on. In each of the power plant’s 60 mills, 10 steel and nickel balls, each weighing 1.2 tonnes, operate in extreme conditions to crush, crunch and pulverise fuel.

These metal balls rotate 37 times a minute at roughly 3 mph, exerting 80 tonnes of pressure, crushing all fuel in their path. Air is then blasted in at 190 degrees Celsius to dry the crushed fuel and blow it into the boiler at a rate of 40 tonnes per hour.

The journey begins: biomass arrives

Biomass arrives at Drax by the train-load. Roughly 14 arrive every day at the power station, delivering up to 20,000 tonnes ready to be used as fuel.

These trains arrive from ports in Liverpool, Tyne, Immingham and Hull and are specially designed to maximise the efficiency of the entire delivery process, allowing a full train to unload in 40 minutes without stopping.

The biomass is then taken to be stored inside Drax’s four huge storage domes. Each capable of fitting the Albert Hall inside, the domes can hold 300,000 tonnes of compressed wood pellets between them.

Here the biomass waits until it’s needed, at which point it makes its way along a conveyor belt to the pulveriser and the process of generating the electricity that powers your breakfast begins.

How Drax is boosting jobs and the economy throughout the UK

Whether powering homes across Britain or helping stabilise the national grid, Drax Power Station’s impact to our electricity network is far reaching. But it doesn’t stop at generating and supplying power.

A new report by Oxford Economics, commissioned by Drax, has found that in addition to its important role powering Britain, Drax Group also provides an economic boost to areas across the country.

Here are three ways Drax Group contributed to the UK economy in 2016. 

£1.67 billion added to UK GDP

Drax Group contributed an estimated £1.67 billion to UK gross domestic product (GDP) in 2016, an increase from £1.24 billion in 2015. Of that figure, £301 million was added directly – as a result of the group’s own activities such as the generating and selling of power.

And while this is an impressive 6.1% increase on 2015, the numbers are even more significant when looking at the benefit beyond the group’s core activities.

In 2016, Drax Group’s spending with external suppliers such as rail freight wagon manufacturer WH Davis and IMServ, which supplies Automated Meter Reading technology to Opus Energy, reached £872 million. A further £36m was spent by these suppliers across their own supply chain to help them provide their services to Drax.

There is an even greater impact when considering how this money filters through employees and suppliers into local retail, leisure and service economies. Something which is especially important when the number of jobs Drax supports is taken into account.

18,500 jobs supported across the country

Drax Group directly employed more than 2,000 people in 2016, but across the country it supports far more – 18,500, a significant increase from the 14,150 of 2015.

These jobs are primarily in high-skilled manufacturing, engineering, construction, IT, professional business services and transport. While 3,650 of these were in Drax Power Station’s native Yorkshire and Humber area, this year saw the group’s overall impact extend much further. 

Opus Energy employees holding meeting in Northampton, 2019

 An impact beyond the ‘Northern Powerhouse’

Roughly a quarter (£419 million) of Drax’s total contribution to UK GDP was generated in the Yorkshire and the Humber region. When the North West and North East were included, the company impacted the northern economy to the tune of £577m and supported over 6,000 jobs.

Yorkshire and the Humber was closely followed by the East of England, the home of Haven Power, which saw the second highest impact – registering more than £200 million contributed in GVA – and London and the East Midlands.

This is thanks in part to the growing activities of Drax Group companies. Both Haven Power and Opus Energy (which became a part of Drax Group in February 2017), are helping the UK move towards a low carbon future by supplying an increasing amount of British companies with renewable power. With offices in Ipswich, Oxford, Northampton and Cardiff, Haven Power and Opus Energy highlight how Drax Group businesses are direct drivers for local GDP and employment. Opus Energy supported 1,600 jobs and £130 million in GVA in Wales, while Haven Power contributed £232 million to the East of England.

These numbers are noteworthy, but what makes them all the more significant is how this translates into tax revenue. Operations at Drax Group generated an estimated £327 million for the UK’s public purse – equivalent to the salaries of almost 14,000 nurses or 11,900 teachers.

As the group continues to grow – adding new power generation assets to the national electricity transmission system and helping more businesses use renewable power – Drax can increase its positive impact on the UK’s economy and help to make the country’s low-carbon future a reality more quickly.

To find out more about how Drax has benefited the UK’s economy, visit draximpact.co.ukThe full 2016 report can be downloaded here. Interested in a career at Drax Group? Please visit Careers to find out more.