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9 of the biggest TV moments in UK electricity history

It’s 1990 and Chris Waddle, England midfielder, steps up to the penalty spot. The 60,000 people in Turin’s Stadio delle Alpi watching him and the fate of England football go silent.

He takes a breath and fires a shot at Bodo Illgner, the German goalkeeper. It careers over the crossbar and misses – England are out of the World Cup. The now famous image of Paul Gascoigne crying into his shirt is beamed across millions of UK television screens.

There’s a shuffling on the sofas in front of those TVs as the population gets up to make a cup of tea, get a drink or turn on the oven. Millions of kettles, lights and fridges are powered up as the country collectively despairs. The demand for electricity across the country soars.
kettle boilingThis is what’s called a ‘TV pickup’ – the moment during a popular television event when there’s a break and viewers unwittingly cause a huge surge of demand from the National Grid.

It’s these moments that have caused some of the biggest spikes in UK electricity demand. Here we look at what’s caused them:


What? Football World Cup Semi Final: England v West Germany
When? Wednesday, 4 July 1990
Electricity demand: 2,800MW – equivalent to 1,120,000 kettles (based on 1MW = 400 kettles), or 4.3 Drax-sized generation units (there are six 645MW units at Drax)

After that fateful penalty miss the population made for the kitchen. The match was watched by an estimated 26 million people in the UK, and when full time was called they caused a 2,800MW surge in electricity demand.


What? The Thorn Birds
When? 22 January 1984
Electricity demand: 2,600MW – 1,040,000 kettles – 4 Drax units

A sleeper hit, The Thorn Birds was a one-off American mini-series about a fictional sheep station in the Australian outback. Based on the novel of the same name, it was broadcast in the UK following building up a huge following in the US when it was aired in 1983. By the time it arrived on UK shores there was clearly enough of that excitement to create a surge of electricity demand – one of the largest in UK TV history.


What? Football World Cup Quarter Final: England v Brazil
When? Friday, 21 June 2002
Electricity demand: 2,570MW – 1,028,000 kettles – 4 Drax units

Broadcast early on a Wednesday morning in the UK due to time differences with South Korea, where the game was played, the match saw England put up a solid fight against overall tournament winners Brazil. A goal from Michael Owen provided early hope and at half time TV viewers left their screens to cause a huge 2,570MW spike in demand. By the time the game had reached its conclusion, Brazil had won thanks to a chipped Ronaldinho free kick that fooled England keeper David Seaman and those viewers who had lasted the duration caused a slightly smaller 2,300MW surge.

Sad couple watching football match on television at home.


What? Eastenders: Lisa admits shooting Phil
When? Thursday, 5 April 2001
Electricity demand: 2,290MW – 916,000 kettles – 3.5 Drax units

In one of the most dramatic plot developments in UK TV history, Lisa Shaw, played by actress Lucy Benjamin, admitted to shooting her former boyfriend, Phil Mitchell. An estimated 22 million viewers turned on to see the dramatic reveal. When it was all over they caused a surge of 2,290MW, more than five times the normal pickup of 400MW seen at the end of an average Eastenders episode.


What? The Darling Buds of May
When? Sunday, 12 May 1991
Electricity demand: 2,200MW – 880,000 kettles – 3.4 Drax units

One of the more wholesome entries to the list, this British comedy drama racked up a huge following during its 20-episode run from 1991 to 1993. The peak was early in the first season, when the third ever episode saw the Larkin family take an unhappy holiday to Brittany. The family’s escapades drew a large audience and prompted a surge equivalent to 880,000 kettles being switched on at the same time.


What? Rugby World Cup Final: England v Australia
When? Saturday, 22 November 2003
Electricity demand: 2,110MW – 844,000 kettles – 3.3 Drax units

A unique sporting entry to the list as England ended as winners. More than 12 million people watched England beat Australia, with the largest electricity demand coming at half time and not at full time, when audiences were presumably still celebrating Jonny Wilkinson’s last minute drop goal.


What? European Football Championship 2020 final: England vs Italy
When? Sunday, 11 July 2021
Electricity demand: 1,800MW – 720,000 kettles – 2.8 Drax units

The most recent heartbreaker for England fans, the match came as COVID-19 restrictions were only beginning to lift around the UK. The team, led by Gareth Southgate, conquered old foes Germany on their way to a final in Wembley, only to lose to Italy on penalties.

The sense of disappointment was almost palpable in the energy demand, peaking at 1,800MW at half-time, when England went into the changing rooms one-nil up. Demand then surged again to 1,200MW at the end of the 90-minute stalemate, followed by a deflated 500MW at the end of the game. Had things gone differently, National Grid ESO was preparing for a peak of 2,000MW.


What? The Royal Wedding – Prince William and Kate
When? Friday, 29 April 2011
Electricity demand: 1,600MW – 640,000 kettles – 2.5 Drax units

The biggest and most celebrated Royal Wedding in a generation, the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton attracted an audience of 24 million in the UK alone. Energy demand peaked at 1,600MW when the bride’s carriage procession returned to Buckingham Palace. This is the largest TV pickup in recent years, which hints at how changing viewer habits, on demand watching and smart TVs are changing the need for power and making TV pickups a rarer occurrence.


What? Clap for carers
When? Thursday, 16 April 2020
Electricity demand: 950MW – 320,000 kettles – 1.5 Drax units

COVID-19 and subsequent lockdowns had several interesting effects on the UK’s energy system. One feature was a return in regular demand spikes, with Thursday evenings’ Clap for Carers events prompting notable surges.

The gestures, held at 8pm on Thursdays between 26 March and 28 May 2020, saw millions across the UK stand outside their homes and clap in appreciation of emergency services workers. As people went back inside to put on kettles and turn on TVs electricity demand spiked. The particularly cloudy evening of 16 April saw demand reach 950MW as more people reached for light switches.


How do we deal with TV pickups?

National grid electricty pylon silhouette at sunrise

Because the level of electricity needed to power the country can’t be stored, when there is a spike in demand it needs to be met quickly by a similar increase in real time generation.

To manage the supply and demand for events likely to cause electricity surges, the National Grid forecasts electricity need for large events like World Cups and major TV events.

The grid can then put contingency measures in place to manage the huge changes in demand in real time. It does this through a suite of tools called balancing mechanisms, which allows it to access sources of extra power in real-time.

The rise of more energy efficient home appliances and on-demand streaming means that the ‘shape’ of electricity demand has become flatter since the days when most of the country was tuned into the same must-see moments.

However, it’s still crucial for the grid to forecast periods of high demand, when it will keep the necessary power stations on reserve, ready to deliver additional electricity if needed.

If it wasn’t for this careful management of electricity by the grid and the power stations like Drax supplying it, that cup of tea next time England crash out of a major sporting event would not only be tainted with disappointment but cold, too.

What is direct air carbon capture and storage (DACS)?

What is direct air carbon capture and storage (DACS)?

Direct air carbon capture and storage (DACS, sometimes referred to as DAC or DACCS) is one of the few technologies that can remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. Unlike other carbon removal technologies that capture CO2 emissions during the process of generating electricity or heat, DACS can be deployed anywhere in the world it can tap into a supply of electricity.

CO2 removal is crucial to meeting the international climate goals set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. But it’s not enough just to cut CO2 emissions, to achieve net zero, it will also be necessary to remove the CO2 that two centuries of industrialisation have released into the environment. As a technology that removes more CO2 from the atmosphere than it releases – assuming it is powered by green electricity – DACS has the potential to play a key role in this process.

Key direct air capture facts

How does DACS work?

DACS could be described as a form of industrial photosynthesis. Just as plants use photosynthesis to convert sunlight and CO2 into sugar, DACS systems use electricity to remove CO2 from the atmosphere using fans and filters.

Air is drawn into the DACS system using an industrial scale fan. Liquid DACS systems pass the air through a chemical solution which removes the CO2 and returns the rest of the air back into the atmosphere.

Solid DACS systems captures CO2 on the surface of a filter covered in a chemical agent, where it then forms a compound. The new compound is heated, releasing the CO2 to be captured and separating it from the chemical agent, which can then be recycled.

The captured CO2 can then be compressed under very high pressure and pumped via pipelines into deep geological formations. This permanent storage process is known as ‘sequestration’.

Alternatively, the CO2 can be pumped under low pressure for immediate use in commercial processes, such as carbonating drinks or cement manufacturing.

A 2021 study by the Coalition for Negative Emissions shows that DACS could provide at least 1Gt of sustainable negative emissions by 2025

DACS fast facts

What role can DACS play in decarbonisation?

CO2 is in the air at the same concentration everywhere in the world. This means that DACS plants can be located anywhere, unlike carbon capture systems that remove CO2 from industrial processes at source.

There are 15 DACS plants currently in operation worldwide – Climeworks operates three in Switzerland, Iceland and Italy. Together, these small-scale plants capture approximately 9,000 tonnes of CO2 per annum. The first large-scale plant, currently being developed in the Permian Basin, Texas, is expected to capture 1,000,000 tonnes (one megatonne) per annum when it becomes operational in 2025.

At just 0.04%, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is very dilute which makes removing and storing it a challenge. This means that DACS costs significantly more than some other CO2 capture technologies – between $200 and $600 (£156-468) per metric tonne. The process also requires large amounts of energy, which adds to the demand for electricity.

However, DACS has the potential to become an important piece in the jigsaw of CO2 removal technologies and techniques that includes nature-based solutions such as planting forests, along with bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), soil sequestration and ‘blue carbon’ marine initiatives.

Go deeper

Button: What is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS)?

Magnets, metal and motion – electricity generation simplified

Generating electricity in a power station is a huge, complex operation. Thousands of tonnes of fuel, millions of gallons of water, intense temperatures and incredibly high pressures all go into spinning turbines and turning generators, which in turn creates electricity.

But strip it back to its basics and making electricity is relatively simple. All it takes is a magnet, metal and motion.

Turning motion into electricity

British scientist Michael Faraday first realised the relationship between magnetic fields and electricity in 1831. He noticed when a magnet moved through a coil of copper, a current flows through the wires. The same thing happens if the wires are moved and the magnetic is static. All that matters is that there is motion in a magnetic field, allowing the kinetic energy to be converted into electrical energy. This simple observation is still the basis of how electricity is generated around the world today.

To replicate this process in miniature, we can use spinning copper wires and an everyday magnet. At this scale the electric current induced is very small – not even enough to power an LED light. However, an ammeter shows the tiny voltage passing along the wires. This is possible because of the relationship between magnetic fields and electric currents.

How electrons create electricity

The key to how magnetic fields convert motion into electric currents is found in atoms. Every neutral atom’s core is made up of static neutrons and protons, with electrons zooming around them. However, with the right outside force introduced, electrons can be stimulated, which causes them to break away from an atom and set off a chain reaction that knocks other electrons free, in turn creating an electric current.

A magnet can provide this outside force. Passing the magnetic field through copper wires, for example, breaks electrons from their copper atoms and sends them flowing in one direction.

Metals are good at conducting electricity because their atoms have a looser hold on their electrons than materials like wood or glass, making it easier for a magnetic field to free them.

The speed at which the magnetic field passes through the atoms affects how many electrons are broken off from them. If more kinetic energy is put into the magnet and it passes through faster, more electrons are set free and more current flows.

Scaling generation up

It’s this simple principal of magnets, metal and motion that powers most of world, but in power stations it is scaled up and optimised to supply huge amounts of electrical power.

Each of Drax’s 600-plus megawatt generators contains a 120 tonne rotor, which acts as a very strong electromagnet. This sits inside the stator which weighs 300 tonnes, and contains 84, 11-metre long copper bars.

High pressure steam is used to spin a series of turbines, which in turn spin the rotor and its magnetic field at 3,000 rpm. As it spins a voltage is induced in its stator at a frequency of 50 cycles per second (which sets the frequency for the entire grid – 50 Hz), sending electrons zooming through the stator bars which carry a huge electric current.

This is the same in almost every form of electricity generation that uses a rotating generator, from wind to hydro to nuclear to biomass. Solar generation is the exception, but it uses the same principle of knocking around electrons.

Instead of using a magnetic field to break electrons from metal atoms, solar panels use photons from sunlight to free electrons from a negatively charged layer of silicon film. These are then attracted to a layer of positive film which creates an electrical current that is collected and channelled from each solar panel.

At its most-basic, electricity generation is simple and even as the world switches to less carbon-intense means of production, the straightforward concept of using a magnetic, metal and motion will remain at its heart

How do you charge an electric car?

When you’re travelling to another continent there are few things more irritating to forget than a plug adapter. Thankfully, they’re relatively easy to buy, even if it means putting holiday plans on hold for half an hour.

But what if rather than having the wrong plug to charge a phone abroad, you found yourself unable to plug in your electric vehicle (EV) on your own street?

It’s a situation that could soon become a reality as different vehicle manufacturers release new models and different energy and charging companies expand their recharging networks, not all of which can connect with each other.

Fragmentation among charging networks, confusing cables and meeting increased electricity demand are all challenges the UK needs to solve to enable all-electric vehicles and cut transport emissions.

EV charging at Drax Power Station, North Yorkshire

Around the country there are more than 17,600 public charge points for EVs to power up at, offered by 35 different charging networks. While some offer connectors that plug straight into cars, others require motorists to use their own cables and connect the ports.

But, similarly to how different models of smartphone often require a different type of charging cable, not all EVs can plug into to the same chargers or use the same protocol to link their batteries to the charging system. It’s something that, without standardisation, could lead to fragmentation and become a major pain point for electric vehicle owners, as well a barrier to more widespread adoption.

Currently car makers in Germany are united in backing a what’s known as combined charging system (CCS), but Japanese manufactures support making CHAdeMO (standing for Charge de Move) the standard protocol, which requires a different type of connecting cable to CCS.

Tesla uses its own network Supercharger points, and although its cars can recharge at other charge points (if the driver has their adapter with them), other manufacturers’ vehicles can’t yet recharge at Tesla Superchargers.

Tesla Model S and Supercharger

Then there’s China. The world’s largest market, where 200 million EVs are expected to be on the roads by 2040, uses an entirely different, GB/T system. Keen to avoid missing out on such a lucrative market Tesla has added a BG/T charging port to its model X vehicles.

Currently, Europe uses the same charging infrastructure as the UK and the larger charging networks operate the same service across the continent. As is the case when setting out on a long drive anywhere though, it’s worth checking where charge points are before setting off.

It may be confusing but it’s still relatively early days for the EV charging industry, and like VHS vs Betamax, there could yet be consolidation across the global market.

Slow, fast, rapid

Expanding where drivers can recharge is key to bringing more EVs onto roads, and in efforts to help grow this, the government has put forward a proposal that all new homes, business and street lights should offer charging points. However, all points do not charge equally and are divided into slow, fast and rapid.

Home charging will be an important part of EV infrastructure, with overnight charging seen as key to managing the increased electricity demand created by substantial EV adoption. It is, however, the slowest and can take six to 12 hours to fully recharge a vehicle.

Fast chargers are those normally found on streets or public destinations, like car parks. For people unable to run a cable from their home to their EV, these will be crucially important, however, they typically require drivers to bring their own connection cable to hook up and can take between two and five hours to fully recharge, depending on the vehicles.

By far the fastest method of EV charging is through rapid charging, which is most-commonly found at motorway service stations. These charge points provide connectors for drivers to plug in and can recharge an EV to 80% in just 30 minutes.

Connector fragmentation, however, could cause some issues at these sites. The likely solution – for the time being – is offering multiple different options, such as at Shell’s recharge points, which house both rapid CCS and CHAdeMO connections, similarly to how traditional pumps might offer both petrol and diesel.

A London Fire Brigade BMW i3 charging

More and smarter charging

As the UK heads towards the 2040 deadline for the end of new petrol and diesel vehicle sales, having the necessary infrastructure to support EV adoption is a key issue to address, according to PwC.

Major companies are making inroads towards addressing this need, with oil giant BP acquiring  Chargemaster, the country’s largest charging network in June. The government is also encouraging further growth through a £400 million fund to be allocated to companies building charging infrastructure.

In addition to allowing more EVs to recharge, smart-grid technology will play an important role in managing how so many are charged without causing surges in demand, or tripping out home or business premises circuits. This can also offer opportunities, such as vehicle-to-grid storage, that enable the National Grid to treat connected EVs like batteries at times of stress.

Electric vehicles are still beginning to appear en mass in the UK. However, their potential to reduce transport emissions makes them an important investment for the government, vehicle manufacturers and energy companies building charging networks. Spreading an understanding of how to charge EVs will help drive returns on those investments.

What can be made from captured carbon?

The combination of a heatwave and an entertaining world cup campaign put big demands on Great Britain’s beer supplies this summer. But European-wide carbon dioxide (CO2) shortages put a hold on that celebratory atmosphere as word spread that a lack of bubbles could result in the country running out of beer.

The drinks business managed to hold out, but the threat of long term CO2 shortages still lingers over the continent. One possible – and surprising – solution could lie in electricity generation, thanks to the capturing and storing of its carbon emissions.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is one of the key technologies in need of development to allow nations to meet their Paris Agreement goals. It has the potential to stop massive amounts of emissions entering the atmosphere, but it also raises the question: what happens to all that carbon once it’s captured?

Drax recently met with the British Beer & Pub Association to discuss using some of the carbon it plans to capture in its upcoming trial of Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) to keep the fizz in drinks.

It’s a novel solution to a potential problem, but it’s just one of the many emerging possibilities being developed around the world.

Smarter sneakers

Carbon capture is all about reducing carbon footprints – a phrase energy company NRG interpreted quite literally by creating ‘The Shoe Without A Footprint’. The white trainer was created to showcase the abilities of carbon capture, use and storage (CCuS) and is made of 75% material produced from captured emissions that have been turned into polymers, a molecular structure similar to plastics.

Only five pairs of the sneakers were created as part of NRG’s Carbon XPrize competition to find uses for captured carbon. However, they remain symbolic of the versatility offered by captured and stored carbon and its potential to contribute to the manufacture of everyday objects.

Better furniture

Finding an alternative to plastics is one of the key ways of facilitating a move away from global dependencies on crude oil. Sustainable materials company Newlight uses captured CO2 or methane emissions to create a bioplastic called AirCarbon –  a thermopolymer, which means it can be melted down and reshaped.

The company has teamed up with IKEA, which will buy 50% of the 23,000 tonnes of bioplastic Newlight’s plant produces per year. It’s part of the Swedish furniture giant’s efforts to increase the amount of recycled materials it uses and means upcycled carbon could soon be appearing in millions of homes around the world.

Cleaner concrete

If the shoes people walk around on can be made from captured carbon, so too can the cities they walk within. Making concrete is a notoriously dirty process. Cement, the main binding agent in concrete, is thought to contribute to as much as 5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but this could change thanks to clever use and implementation of carbon capture technology.

At one level, CCS can be introduced to capture emissions from the manufacturing process. On another, the CO2 captured can be used as a raw material from which to create the concrete, effectively ‘locking in’ carbon and storing it for the long term.

Teams of engineers, material scientists and economists at UCLA who have worked on the problem for 30 years have succeeded in creating construction materials from CO2 emissions in lab conditions using 3D printing technology. Now it’s just a matter of scaling it up to industrial usage.

A metal alternative

Carbon nanotubes are stronger than steel but lighter than aluminium, which makes them a hugely useful material. They’re currently used in jets, sports cars and even in industrial structures, but producing them can be expensive and, until recently, could not utilise CO2 for manufacture. A team from George Washington University is changing that.

Its C2CNT technology splits captured CO2 into oxygen and carbon in a molten carbonate bath using electrolysis. From here the carbon is repurposed into carbon nanotubes at a high rate and lower cost than previous methods.

Future fuels

Transportation is one of the major emitters of carbon around the world, so any way it can be reduced or re-used in this field will be a huge positive. Carbon recycling company LanzaTech has developed a way to do this via a process that uses anaerobic bacteria to ferment emissions into cleaner chemicals and fuels.

Its first facility, opening this year in China, will create fuel-grade bioethanol that can be blended with gasoline to create vehicle fuel, or even converted into jet fuel with 65% lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Aviation, too, can benefit from carbon recycling through the creation of synthetic crude oil and gas using CO2. Technology company Sunfire is developing processes that combine hydrogen (set to become a major part of industry and transport) and biogenic CO2, (emissions from natural sources), to create synthetic hydrocarbons that could fuel planes.

From Silicon Valley to Valles Marineris

Earth isn’t the only place humans are innovating around carbon capture – at least, right now. With the race to send men and women to Mars stepping up, the challenges of dealing with its inhospitable atmosphere (which is 95% CO2) and ensuring a minimal human impact to the planet are becoming more acute. Carbon capture and use presents an opportunity to tackle both.

Californian company Opus 12 has developed a device that recycles CO2 from ambient air and industrial emissions and turns it into fuels and chemicals using only electricity and water. The device has the CO2 conversion power of 37,000 trees (or 64 football fields of dense forest) packed into the volume of a suitcase, and can convert CO2 into 16 different products.

In the long-term, the technology might provide critical services for human colonies on the Red Planet by capturing and using CO2 from the atmosphere or any future Mars-based factories. The Opus 12 device can also use ice (buried on the planet in places that could be accessible to astronauts) to convert Mars CO2 into plastic to make bricks and tools, methane that can form rocket fuel, and feedstocks for microbes to create medicine or food.

Turning pollution into possibilities

Many of these technologies are in their infancy, but the possibilities they present are very real. In fact, Drax’s upcoming trial of BECCS will see it capture and store as much as a tonne of carbon every day.

The proliferation of this technology in industry and electricity production – and the resultant increase in captured carbon – will help encourage more companies to see CO2 emissions as an opportunity for revenue while helping countries meet their Paris Agreement emissions goals.

Learn more about carbon capture, usage and storage in our series:

How turbines came to power the world

Charles Algernon Parsons knew he was onto something in 1884. The young engineer had joined a ship engineering firm and developed a steam turbine engine, which he immediately saw had a bigger potential than powering boats.

He connected it to a dynamo, turning it into a generator capable of producing up to 7.5 kilowatts (kW) of power, and in the process kickstarted an electrical and mechanical revolution that would reshape how electricity was produced and how the world worked.

Today turbine-based generation is the dominant method for electricity production throughout the world and even now – almost a century and a half later – Parsons’ turbine concept remains largely unchanged, even if the world around it has.

Steam dreams

Throughout the 20th and into the current century, electricity generation has depended on steam power. Be it in a coal, nuclear or biomass power plant, heating water into highly pressurised steam is at the core of production.

Greek mathematician and inventor Hero of Alexandria is cited as building the first ever steam engine of sorts with his aeolipile, which used steam to spin a hollow metal sphere. But it wasn’t until the 18th century, when English ironmonger Thomas Newcomen designed an – albeit inefficient – engine to pump water out of flooded mines, that steam became a credible power in industry.

Scottish engineer James Watt, from whose name the unit of energy comes from, built on these humble beginnings and turned steam into the power behind the industrial revolution around 1764 when he added an condensing chamber to Newcomen’s original design.

It was the combination of this engine with Thomas Edison’s electrical generator late in the 19th century that first made large-scale electricity production from steam a reality.

The turbine takes over

Steam engines and steam power was not a new concept when Parson began his explorations in the space. In fact, nor were steam turbines. Others had explored ways to use stream’s velocity to spin blades rather than using its pressure to pump pistons, in turn allowing rotors to spin at much greater speeds while requiring less raw fuel.

What made Parsons’ design so important was its ability to keep rotational speeds moderate while also extracting as much kinetic energy from steam jets as possible.

He explained in a 1911 Rede Lecture that this was done by “splitting up the fall in pressure of the steam into small fractional expansions over a large number of turbines in series,” which ensured there was no one place the velocity of the blades was too great.

The design’s strength was also apparent at scale. In 1900 his company (which was eventually acquired by Siemens) was building turbine-generator units capable of producing 1,000 kW of electricity. By 1912, however, the company was installing a 25,000 kW unit for the City of Chicago. Parsons would live to see units reach 50,000 kW and become the primary source of electricity generation around the world.

Turbines in the modern grid

The world is a vastly different place to the one in which Parson designed his turbine, yet the fundamentals of his concept have changed very little. The results of what they achieve and the scales at which they work, however, have increased significantly.

Today the turbines that make up Drax’s six generating units are each capable of producing more than 600 MW (or 6,000,000 kW) of electricity with the shape, materials and arrangement of blades carefully designed to maximise efficiency.

And while that first design was purely with steam in mind, turbine technology has advanced beyond dependency on a single power source, and has been developed to accommodate for the shift towards lower-carbon power sources.

One such example is gas turbines, which work by sucking in air through a compressor, which is then heated by burning natural gas, in turn spinning a turbine as it expands. These can jump into action much faster than other turbines as they don’t require any steam to be created to power them.

Renewable sources, such as hydro and wind power, also depend on spinning turbines to generate electricity. Where these differ from gas or steam-powered turbines is that rather than being encased in metal and blasted with gases, wind and hydro turbines’ blades are exposed, so flowing air or water can spin them, powering a generator in turn.

Turbine technology helped bring access to electricity around the world, but the ingenuity and flexibility of the design means it is now serving to adapt electricity production for the post-coal age.

The everyday and future ways you use forest products

Think of the products that come from forests and you might think of the centuries of shipbuilding, construction and cooking made possible by civilisations utilising this plentiful natural resource.

What you might not think of is the complex construction of chemicals and matter that make up the trees of a forest – nor of the countless ways these can be broken down and used. Yet this is the reality of forests. From essential oils to sturdy packaging to powerful adhesives, trees are used to create a range of products that make daily life possible.

And as awareness of the need to reduce plastic consumption grows, research into forest products and how they can replace the less-environmentally friendly objects is growing.

Here we look at five of the most common products used today, and maybe in the future, that owe something to forests.

Adhesives from tall oil

Anyone who has encountered tree sap can attest: trees are made up of some pretty sticky stuff. And it’s because of this that they have long been a source for adhesives production – from glue to cement.

The substance that makes this possible is known as tall oil. Named after the Swedish word Tallolja, meaning pine oil, it is a by-product of pulping coniferous trees.

Tall oil has been produced commercially since the 1930s when the invention of the recovery boiler made it possible to extract it from the Kraft pulping process. However, the resins and waxes tall oil is made up of have a longer history. These are also known as ‘Naval Products’ due to their historic use in ship building and can be tapped directly from living trees.

Today, tall oil is also used in asphalt roofing, as well as medical and cosmetic applications. One of tall oil’s most exciting uses is as BioVerno – a renewable alternative to diesel made in the world’s first commercial-scale biorefinery in Finland.

Disinfectants and detergents from turpentine

Tapping trees has historically been a means of extracting multiple useful substances and one of the most versatile of these is turpentine. This yellowish liquid is produced from distilled tree resin and has a long history of uses.

Turpentine has been used since Roman times as torch or lamp fuel, but its antiseptic properties also means it was often used as medicine. While doctors today would advise against drinking turpentine (as was prescribed in the past), it is still used today in disinfectants, detergents and cleaning products, giving off a fresh, pine-like odour.

Fuels to replace fossils

Biomass pellets from working forests are just one of the ways trees are providing renewable energy. One other form is cellulosic ethanol, a new, second generation of liquid biofuel. Rather than competing with food supply (often a concern in the creation of biodiesels), cellulosic ethanol is made from non-food based materials such as forest and agricultural residues left behind after harvest – wheat straw, – and timber processing wastes including sawdust. It is now being produced at a commercial scale in Europe, the US and Brazil.

Woody biomass can also be converted into a petroleum substitute known as pyrolysis oil or bio-oil. Biomass is transformed into this dark brown liquid by heating it to 500oC in an oxygen-deprived environment and then allowing it to cool. Bio-oil has a much higher energy density than biomass in chip or pellet form and after upgrading can be used as jet fuel or as a petroleum alternative in chemical manufacturing.

Vanilla ice cream and carbon fibre from lignin

Lignin is what gives trees their tough, woody quality, and after cellulose is the world’s second most abundant natural polymer. Polymers are very long molecules made up of many smaller molecules joined end-to-end most often associated with plastic, (which is a synthetic polymer).

Lignin is generally a waste product from the paper pulping process and is often burnt as fuel. However, it can also serve as a vanilla flavouring – a property that may make lignin an important resource in the face of an impending vanilla pod shortage.

Future-looking research, however, aims to unlock much more from the 50 million tonnes of lignin produced every year globally. One of the most promising of these is as an alternative source of a family of organic compound known as phenylpropanoids. These are normally extracted from petroleum and are hugely useful in producing plastics and carbon fibre, as well as drugs and paint. 

Nanocellulose and the future of forest products

Cellulose is already one of the most important products to come from forests thanks to its role in paper production. However, this abundant substance – which is also the primary material in the cell walls of all green plants – holds even more potential.

By shrinking cellulose down to a nano level it can be configured to be very strong while remaining very light. This opens it up as a product with many possibilities, including using it as a source of bioplastics. Some bioplastics – polylactic acid, PHA, PBS and starch blends – are biodegradable alternatives to fossil fuel-based plastics and could potentially help solve some of the world’s most-pressing waste issues.

Not all bio-based plastics are biodegradable, however. The property of biodegradation doesn’t depend on the resource basis of a material – it is linked to its chemical structure. In other words, 100% bio-based plastics may be non-biodegradable, and 100% fossil-based plastics can biodegrade.

Bio-based plastics that are not biodegradable include polyethylene terephthalate, polyurethanes, polyamide, polyethylene. Polyethylenefuranoate or PEF is recyclable, can be manufactured without fossil fuels and while not biodegradable, has the potential to become a more sustainable alternative to the oil-based plastic used to make water bottles.

Cellulose’s combination of strength and light weight has also attracted interest from the auto industry in the ability to help cars become much lighter and therefore more fuel efficient. Its flexible, strong, transparent nature can also make Nanocellulose – an important material in helping bring bendable screens, batteries, cosmetics, paper, pharmaceuticals, optical sensors and devices to market.

The idea of using trees as a source of goods and products in everyday life might sound archaic, but, in reality, we’ve only just tapped the surface of what the chemicals and materials they’re made of can do. Markus Mannström from Finnish renewables company Stora Enso said recently that: “We believe that everything made from fossil-based materials today, can be made from a tree tomorrow.” As research advances, trees and forests will only play a bigger role in a more sustainable future.

How to switch a power station off coal

Turbine hall at Drax Power Station

In 2003, the UK’s biggest coal power station took its first steps away from the fossil fuel which defined electricity generation for more than a century. It was in that year that Drax Power Station began co-firing biomass as a renewable alternative to coal.

It symbolised the beginnings of the power station’s ambitious transformation from fossil-fuel stalwart to the country’s largest single-site renewable electricity generator. This plan presented a massive engineering challenge for Drax, with significant amounts of new knowledge quickly needed.

Fifteen years later, three of its generating units now run entirely on compressed wood pellets, a form of biomass, while coal has been relegated to stepping in only to cover spikes in demand and improve system stability.

Now Drax has converted a fourth unit from coal to biomass. This development represents the passing of a two thirds marker for the power station’s coal-free ambitions and adds 600-plus megawatts (MW) of renewable electricity to Great Britain’s national transmission system.

Building on the past

Drax first converted a coal unit to biomass in 2013, with two more following in 2014 and 2016. This put Drax in an interesting position going into a new conversion: on one hand, it is one of the most experienced generators in the world when it comes to dealing with and upgrading to biomass. On the other, it’s still relatively new to the low carbon fuel compared with its dealings with coal.

Adam Nicholson

“We’ve decades of understanding of how to use coal, but we’ve only been operating with biomass since we started the full conversion trials in 2011,” says Adam Nicholson, Section Head for Process Performance at Drax Power. “We’ve got few running hours under our belts with the new fuel versus the hundreds of man years of coal knowledge and operation all around the country.”

When converting a generating unit, the steam turbine and generator itself remain the same. The difference is all in the material being delivered, stored, crushed and blown into the boiler and burned to heat up water and create steam. And because biomass can be a volatile substance – much more so than coal – this process must be a careful one.

Drax could build on the learnings and equipment it had already developed for biomass such as specially built trains and pulverising mills, but storage proved a bigger issue. The giant biomass domes at Drax that make up the EcoStore are advanced technological structures carefully attuned to storing biomass, but for Unit 4, they were off limits.

Instead Drax engineers had to come up with another solution.

The journey of a pellet through the power station

Normally wood pellets are brought into Drax by train, unloaded and stored in the biomass domes before travelling through the power station to the mills and then boilers. Unit 4, however, sits in the second half of the station – built 12 years after the first. This slight change in location presented a problem.

“There’s no link from the eco store to Unit 4 at all,” explains Nicholson. “You can’t use the storage domes and that whole infrastructure to get anything to Unit 4.”

Drax engineers set about designing a new conveyor system that could connect the domes to the mills and boiler that powers Unit 4. After weeks of design, the team had a theoretical plan to connect the two locations with one problem: it was entirely uneconomical.

Rail unloading building 1 and storage silos

“If we were building a new plant it would be relatively easy, because you could plan properly and wouldn’t have existing equipment in the way,” says Nicholson.

“We had to plan around it and make use of the pre-existing plant.”

Within that pre-existing plant though were vital pieces of equipment, some of which had laid dormant since Drax stopped fuelling its boilers with a mixture of coal and biomass and opted instead for full unit conversions.

Drax began cofiring across all six units in 2003, using two different materials – a mix of around 5% biomass and 95% coal. A direct injection facility was added in 2005. It involved blowing crushed wood pellets into coal fuel lines from two of the power station’s 60 mills.

Then, the amount of renewable power Drax was able to generate roughly doubled in the summer of 2010 when a 400 MW co-firing facility became operational.

Back to the present day, it’s fortunate for the Unit 4 conversion that the co-firing facility includes its own rail unloading building (RUB 1) and storage silos. They are located much closer to the unit than the bigger RUB 2 and the massive biomass domes.

This solved the problem of storage but moving the required volumes of biomass through the plant without significant transport construction still posed a challenge.

Rail unloading building 1 and storage silos for Unit 4 [left], EcoStore biomass domes for units 1-3 [right]

To tackle this the team modified a pneumatic transport system, previously tested during co-firing, to have the capability to blow entire pellets from the storage facilities around the power station at speeds of more than 20 metres per second. The success of this system proved key – it was the final piece necessary to make the conversion of Unit 4 economical.

The post-coal future

Andy Koss

For now, Drax’s fifth and sixth generating unit remain coal-powered, but are called upon less frequently. With Great Britain set to go completely coal-free by 2025, there are plans to convert these too, but as part of a system of combined cycle gas turbines and giant batteries rather than biomass powered units.

It’s an opportunity for Drax to again leverage its pre-existing plant and provide the grid with a fast acting-source of lower-carbon electricity. As with converting to biomass, it will pose a complex new engineering challenge – one that will prepare Drax to meet the future needs of grid as it continues to change and demand greater flexibility from generators.

“The speed at which the Unit 4 project has been delivered is testament to the engineering expertise, skill and ingenuity we continue to see at Drax. We’re nimble and innovative enough to meet future challenges,” says Andy Koss, Chief Executive, Drax Power.

“We may look very different in 10 or 20 years’ time, but the ethos of that innovation and agility is something that will persist.”

Repowering the remaining coal plant with gas and up to 200 MW of batteries will sit alongside research into areas such as carbon capture, use and storage (CCuS) that is all geared towards expanding Drax Power beyond a single site generator into a portfolio of flexible power production facilities.

Unit 4’s conversion is more than just a step beyond halfway for the power station’s decarbonisation, but a significant step towards becoming entirely coal-free.

Find out more about Unit 4.

Great Britain is almost ready for coal-free summers

Every summer Great Britain uses less and less coal. This June the fossil fuel’s share of the electricity mix dipped below 1% for the first time ever – for 12 days it dropped all the way to zero.

Spurred on by the beginnings of an uncharacteristically dry, hot summer and a jump in solar generation, the possibility of the country going entirely coal-free for a full summer now looks more achievable than ever in modern times.

This is one of the key findings from Electric Insights, a quarterly report commissioned by Drax and written, independently, by researchers from Imperial College London. It found that across Q2 2018, there were as many coal-free hours as in the whole of 2016 and 2017 combined.

And while the report’s findings are hugely positive, they also hint at where development is still needed. What else does the performance of this quarter tell us about what we can expect in the power sector – in Great Britain and around the world?

Great Britain is slashing coal generation, the rest of the world needs to catch up

Great Britain has reduced its coal-fired power generation by four-fifths over the last five years. Last quarter the country’s coal fleet ran at just 3% of its 12.9 gigawatt (GW) capacity. Coal capacity is now lower than the capacity of solar PV panels (13.1 GW) installed nationwide, with the most recent decline resulting from Drax’s conversion of a fourth unit from coal to biomass.

When coal generation was running, it primarily provided system balancing services overnight in May and June rather than baseload electricity. However, this positive trend is not seen around the world.

The share of coal in national power systems during 2017

Globally, coal still provides 38% of the world’s electricity – the same amount it did 30 years ago. This comes despite efforts in Europe and North America to move away from coal, and growing investment into renewable generation and technologies.

Overall, Europe’s coal generation dropped from 39% to 22% over the last 30 years, despite some countries – such as Poland and Serbia – still drawing significant generation from the fossil fuel. The US has also reduced its coal generation from 57% to 31% over the past 30 years, as natural gas proves more economical, even in an era of pro-coal policies.

Coal train at rail station in India.

However, in the Middle East and Africa (which draw significant generation from their oil and gas reserves) and South America (where coal accounts for less than 3% of generation), total coal generation is growing. In fact, globally, only seven countries use less coal today than 30 years ago: Germany, Poland, Spain, Ukraine, the US, Great Britain and Canada.

Electric Insights attributes part of this global growth to the continued increase in demand for electricity, particularly in Asia. China, South Korea and Indonesia collectively burn 10 times more coal than they did 30 years ago. India’s coal habit has also increased over the past decade to account for 76% of its electricity generation, while Japan’s usage has grown from 15% to 34% in the same period.

As well as the stresses created by growing demand, this highlights a global disparity in the approach to decarbonising electricity systems, and a need for longer-term, environmentally and socially-conscious market-based initiatives that encourage meaningful movement to lower-carbon electricity sources, such as the UK and Canada’s Powering Past Coal Alliance.

Read the full articles here:

(Lack of) progress in global electricity generation

Britain edges closer to zero coal

Solar farm in South Wales

Decarbonisation is growing, but it’s going to get harder

Great Britain’s decline in coal use has rapidly accelerated its decarbonisation efforts. Annual coal power station emissions have shrunk over the past five years from 129 to 19 million tonnes of CO2 and helped reduce the average carbon intensity of electricity generation to a record low of 195 g/kWh last quarter.

However, this rapid pace of decarbonisation is unlikely to be sustained as growth in renewables faces a plateau, the country’s current nuclear capacity reaches retirement and the target of moving beyond coal by 2025 is completed.

Renewable sources now account for a steady 25% of annual electricity generation. These sources largely came onto the system through policies such as the government’s Renewables Obligation, which is now closed to entrants; Contracts for Differences, the future of which is uncertain for mature technologies like onshore wind and solar; and Feed-in Tariffs for roof-top solar installations which will close in April 2019. The end of these initiative paints a hazy picture of how future renewable capacity will be brought into the system.

Nuclear capacity also looks unlikely to expand at the rate needed to plug gaps in demand, with half of the country’s fleet expected to close for safety reasons by 2025. The Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, meanwhile, is only expected to come online at the end of that year.

Read the full article here:

Has Britain’s power sector decarbonisation stalled?

Ramsgate, Kent during summer 2018 heatwave

Weather will continue to play a major part in renewable generation

If the first quarter of 2018 was defined by low temperatures and heavy snowfall, the second quarter saw the impact of the opposite in weather conditions. From 23 June a heatwave set in around the country that saw temperatures increase by 3.3oC in a week, driving demand to jump 860 MW – the equivalent of an extra 2.5 million households, or an area the size of Scotland.

The increase in demand isn’t as drastic as when cold fronts hit, but if summers continue to get hotter this could change. Today, winter-time demand increases by 750 MW for every degree it drops below 14oC as electric heaters are plugged in to aid largely gas-based central-heating systems. When the mercury rises, however, demand increases by 350 MW for every degree rise over 20oC as businesses turn on air conditioning and the country’s refrigerators work harder.

These heatwave spikes are, at the moment, more easily dealt with than winter storms. While the Beast from the East saw demand reaching a peak of 53.3 GW, June’s topped out at 32.5 GW. The clear skies and long days of June also meant solar PV generation soared, making up for the ‘wind drought’ caused by the high-pressure weather. Wind output floated between 0.3 GW and 4.3 GW in June, far below its quarter peak to 13 GW. However, solar made up for this by peaking past 8 GW for 13 days in June and setting a new record of 9.39 GW at lunchtime on 27 June.

Read the full articles:

How the heat wave affects electricity demand

The summer wind drought and smashing solar

Explore the data in detail by visiting the full report.

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.