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Forests are more powerful than you think – here’s why

Almost one third of the earth’s land mass is covered by forests. That’s an area of around 4 billion hectares, or roughly four times the size of the US.

In addition to being a prominent feature across the global landscape, forests also play a significant role in how we live. They make the air cleaner in cities and absorb carbon from the atmosphere. They provide bio-diversity and habits for wildlife. They also provide essential forest products such as paper, building materials and wood pellets for energy.

To celebrate the UN’s International Day of Forests, we’re looking at some of the reasons why forests and wood fuel are more powerful than you might think.

They’re a major source of renewable energyFamily at home using renewable energy.

Nearly half of the world’s renewable energy comes from forests in the form of wood fuel. Roughly 2.4 billion people around the world use it for things like cooking, heating and generating electricity. In fact, about 50% of the total global wood production is currently used for these purposes.

However, it is critical that this resource is managed sustainably and responsibly. One of the key aims of the International Day of Forests is to encourage people to utilise their local forest resources sustainably to ensure it endures for future generations.

They can revitalise economiesA truck unloading.

Because wood fuel is such a widely used energy source, it also supports a healthy, vibrant industry. Roughly 900 million people work in the wood energy sector globally.

More than that, rural economies built on wood energy can be revitalised by modernisation, which can then stimulate local business. Investment can help finance better forest management, which in turn leads to forest growth, improvements in sustainability standards and in some cases, increased employment.

They can help mitigate climate changeYoung sapling forest.

The world’s forests have an energy content about 10 times that of the global annual primary energy consumption, which makes it a hugely useful resource in helping meet energy demand in a sustainable and renewable way.

When wood is used as fuel it releases carbon dioxide (CO2). However, if this fuel is drawn from a responsibly managed forest or sustainable system of growing forests this carbon is offset by new tree plantings. The only emissions produced therefore are the ones involved in transporting the wood itself. The US Food and Agriculture Organization predict that by 2030 forestry mitigation with the help of carbon pricing could contribute to reductions of 0.2 to 13.8 Gigatonnes (Gt) CO2 a year.

5 of London’s most iconic buildings made with ash

London Skyline with cranes

London’s historic relationship with its power system is clear to see in its skyline. Old decommissioned power stations, a reminder of the city’s industrial heritage, have been repurposed to house art or corporate headquarters, connecting the city’s past to its present.

But these historical buildings aren’t the only physical connection to how the city is powered. In fact, much of modern London is built using a by-product from electricity generation.

Although Drax Power Station now generates more than half its electricity using sustainable biomass, a proportion comes from coal, of which ash is a by-product. But rather than discarding this ash to landfill, Drax sells it to companies who turn it into something useful: Lytag.

Lytag is made from transforming the ash into small round pellets and then heating them to 1,100°C, creating very hard spheres of lightweight aggregate. These can be used to create high strength concrete, as well as used in filter systems, roof tiles, and sports surfaces.

Here are some of the most iconic buildings in London made using Lytag.

The Gherkin

City View of London around Liverpool Street station

The building at 30 St Mary Axe, also known as the Gherkin, is a notable feature of the capital’s skyline. But more than being a unique landmark, when constructed it was dubbed London’s ‘first ecological tall building’. It uses wind for heating and cooling, which means it uses nearly 50% less energy than comparable office buildings, and was constructed using recycled and recyclable materials where possible, including Lytag.

London City Hall

London cityscape with the Shard and the City hall

Like the Gherkin, London’s City Hall is not only a visually unique building but an energy-efficient one, too. Solar panels across its façade generate renewable electricity, while smart meters and sensors ensure the power it does use is carefully optimised – it even recycles heat generated by its computers and lights. In construction, Lytag was used in the flooring, helping the building’s overall sustainability credentials.

Heron Tower

View of a skyscraper in London from the ground up.

Lightweight Lytag aggregate formed part of the concrete used to construct the Heron Tower, which helped reduce structural loading. This City of London skyscraper was awarded an ‘Excellent’ rating from BREEAM, the world’s leading sustainability assessors. The rating owes much to the south side of the building, which is studded with an incredible 48,000 photovoltaic arrays.

St Pancras Station

St Pancras International station terminal

The recent upgrade to St Pancras involved widespread refurbishment, as well as civil and structural modifications to facilities across the station. One such modification was a 185-metre extension to create 13 new platforms for additional domestic and international services.

Wimbledon Centre Court

Wimbledon centre court

In 2006 the world’s most famous tennis court began a major overhaul. For the first time in its history, Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club was to get a retractable roof that covers the whole court. But to do this it needed to undergo a five-storey redevelopment, which also increased its capacity to 15,000 spectators.

Lytag was used to create a specially formulated, water resistant concrete that anchored the additional seating and helped bring the world’s biggest tennis tournament into a new era.

More to come

Two green cranes working on a building

Although coal is fast becoming a smaller part of the UK’s electricity generation mix, Lytag remains a part of London construction. It’s currently being used in the One Bank Street development in Canary Wharf and the Pinnacle building in the City of London, which when finished will be the second tallest building in London – a noteworthy addition to the capital’s skyline.


Taxing coal off the system

In the Spring Budget 2017, the Chancellor announced that the Government remains committed to carbon pricing. Philip Hammond’s red book revealed that from 2021-22 ‘the Government will target a total carbon price and set the specific tax rate … giving businesses greater clarity on the total price they will pay.’ Further details on carbon prices are to be ‘set out at Autumn Budget 2017’.

Researchers at Imperial College London have modelled what would have happened during 2016 with no carbon tax and also with an increased carbon tax. They have compared both with what actually happened. Their conclusion?

No carbon tax would mean:

  • More coal
  • Less gas
  • Higher emissions.

A higher carbon tax would mean:

  • Less coal
  • More gas
  • Lower emissions

Since it was announced in 2011, the Carbon Price Support (CPS) has encouraged generators and industry to invest in lower carbon and renewable technologies. It has also forced coal generators to fire their boilers only when they are really needed to meet demand, such as during the winter months or at times of peak demand and still or overcast weather conditions during the summer months.

The introduction of the carbon price has meant that gas power stations, which are less carbon intensive than coal, have jumped ahead of coal in the economic merit order of energy generation technologies and produced a greater share of the UK’s power. The same is the case for former coal generation units that have since upgraded to sustainable biomass – three such units at Drax Power Station result in savings in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of at least 80%.

A coal cliff edge?

The Carbon Price Support has resulted in significant savings in the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, helping the UK meet its international climate change commitments. Removing or reducing the CPS too soon and Britain’s power mix risks going back in time. It would improve the economics of coal and encourage Britain’s remaining coal power stations to stay open for longer creating a risk to security of supply through a ‘cliff edge’ of coal closures in the mid-2020s. Changing the economics to favour coal also makes it harder to reach the UK government’s goal of bringing a new fleet of gas power stations online.

What if …

Dr Iain Staffell from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London has modelled a scenario in which the Carbon Price Support did not exist in 2016. “If the government had abolished all carbon pricing, we would probably have seen a 20% increase in the power sector’s carbon emissions,” said Staffell.

“Removing the Carbon Price Support would have the equivalent environmental impact of every single person in the UK deciding to drive a car once a year from Land’s End to John o’Groats.”

Without the Carbon Price Support, emissions from electricity consumption would be 20% higher, meaning an extra 250 kg per person (equivalent to driving a car 800 miles).

Running the numbers

The Carbon Price Support is capped at £18/tCO2 until 2021. In his Budget on 8th March 2017, Chancellor Philip Hammond – rightly, in the view of Drax – confirmed the government’s commitment to carbon pricing. Using data from National Grid and Elexon and analysis from Dr Iain Staffell, Electric Insights shows how coal power generation was only needed last winter when electricity demand was greater than could be produced by other technologies alone. Coal was only used at times of peak demand because it was among the most expensive energy technologies, in part due to the CPS.

What if that wasn’t the case and the government had decided to scrap the CPS before that point in time? More coal is burnt, particularly during the daytimes – on average coal produces 2,500 MW more over this week (equivalent to four of Drax Power Station’s six generation units).

And what does Dr Iain Staffell’s model suggest would have happened if the cap was doubled to £36/tCO2? The change is stark. Even for a week in the winter, with an average temperature across the country of 8.6oC, to see coal generation reduced so much compared to the actual CPS of £18/tCO2 or the £0/tCO2 scenario model, illustrates the impact of the Carbon Price Support.

Could bill payers save?

One argument for reducing the Carbon Price Support – or scrapping it altogether – is the possibility that consumers and non-domestic electricity bill payers would save money. It’s worth noting that apparent savings for electricity bill payers are lowered when the whole way that power is priced is accounted for, by the time it reaches homes and businesses.

“Carbon price support does increase the cost of wholesale power,” says Staffell. “But if you add the extra taxes, other renewable and low carbon support measures, transmission and balancing charges and fees imposed by electricity suppliers, the overall impact on consumer bills is modest. So, if the government abolished all carbon pricing, we could expect a 1 p/kWh reduction in our tariffs, but a 21% increase in our carbon emissions.”

As a report by economic consultancy NERA and researchers from Imperial College London has already shown, there are other ways to save bill payers money, while encouraging a low carbon future. Their analysis published in early 2016 found that households and businesses could save £2bn if the government considered the whole system cost of electricity generation and supply when designing its competitions for support under its Contracts for Difference (CfD) scheme.

2016, redux

Without the Carbon Price Support, the UK wouldn’t have managed to send carbon emissions back to 19th century levels.

So if 2016 was played out one more time but with no Carbon Price Support:

  • Coal generation would have increased by 102% (28 terawatt-hours) to 56 TWh
  • Gas generation would have decreased by 21% (-27 TWh) to 101 TWh
  • Carbon emissions would have risen by 21% (16 million tonnes of carbon dioxide) to 92MT CO2
  • The carbon intensity of the grid would have increased by 20% from 290 gCO2/kWh to 349 gCO2/kWh

And if 2016 had seen a doubling of the CPS to £36/tCO2:

  • Coal generation would have decreased by 47% (-12.9 TWh) to 14.7 TWh
  • Gas generation would have increased by 9% (11.8 TWh) to 139.5 TWh
  • Carbon emissions would have decreased by 10% (7.3 MT CO2) to 68.6 MT CO2
  • The carbon intensity of the grid would have decreased by 9% from 290 gCO2/kWh to 263 gCO2/kWh

The two scenarios presented above only modelled the impact of no or a higher Carbon Price Support on nuclear, coal and gas power supply. In the real-world, changes to the Carbon Price Support would also impact on energy technologies that operate under the Renewables Obligation (RO) such as two of Drax’s three biomass units and much of the country’s other renewable capacity. CPS changes would also likely impact imports and storage.

While no analysis is perfect this clearly illustrates the significantly negative impact that scrapping or reducing the Carbon Price Support would have on the UK’s decarbonisation agenda. It also highlights the benefits that the government’s decision to remain committed to carbon pricing will deliver.

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.

Annual report and accounts 2016: Smart Energy Solutions – Q&A

View the Drax Group plc annual report and accounts

Q. Do you think performance got better or worse in 2016?

A. Financially, EBITDA was in line with our guidance, although below 2015. This principally reflects very challenging commodity markets and the removal of the Climate Change Levy exemption.

We were able to partly offset the impact of these factors with a focus on flexible system support, in the prompt and balancing markets, ancillary services and improving retail profitability, all of which are important parts of our strategy to develop broader, non-commodity exposed earnings.

Operationally, 2016 was another good year across our business, but particularly
in generation where the team completed a significant outage programme and on the regulatory front the European Commission’s approval of the CfD meant we could complete the final stages of the upgrade to our third biomass unit.

Q. What were the most significant changes for the Group in 2016?

A. The most important change was the new Group strategy, which gives us all a very clear direction for the future and will see Drax become a broader business across our markets – pellet supply, generation and retail. The acquisition of Opus Energy will strengthen our retail offer, and our plans to build four rapid response gas power stations will plug the gaps at times of system stress.

The new Group strategy is underpinned by new people and IT strategies which are crucial to its successful delivery.

Haven Power has also seen significant change with the arrival of CEO Jonathan Kini. He, along with his team have been working to ensure we are well placed to continue growing and to boost our retail offer with the recent acquisition of Opus.

Q. How do you think 2017 will be different to 2016?

A. The focus will be on continuing to deliver good performance right across the Group, but there will also be changes as we work closely with the Opus team to ensure we create the best possible retail offer for the UK’s SMEs. Drax Power will be progressing the OCGT gas projects, and it will be an exciting year for Drax Biomass as they look to secure acquisitions of pellet mills and opportunities to export compressed word pellets to other markets. Everyone across the Group will see further evidence of the new strategy roll-out, particularly in the form of the people and IT strategies.

Q How does diversifying into gas fit with your aim to replace coal with renewable generation at Drax?

A. It complements it perfectly. The European Commission’s approval of the CfD enabled us to complete the upgrade of half the power station to run on compressed wood pellets in place of coal and in 2016, 65% of the electricity we generated at Drax was renewable.

The job is not yet done, and with the right conditions we will upgrade the remaining coal units. We can do this in just two to three years, when the conditions are right.

The planned gas power stations will not be run to produce baseload power, but as rapid response units to plug the gaps at times of system stress, for example when wind and solar fail to contribute what’s required. They will also be part of a solution that can accelerate the end of coal in the UK.

Q. Can you explain the acquisition of Opus? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to grow Haven?

A. We acquired Haven in 2009 when it was an SME focused business. Since then the business has grown significantly by principally focusing on the I&C market to provide a route to market for around half the electricity Drax Power produces, although it retains a relatively small SME presence.

Opus – like Haven – is a challenger business and brings with it 265,000 customer metered sites, largely SMEs. Opus also supplies gas, which for the first time will see us having the ability to provide a dual fuel offer, something that is vital for many SMEs.

Opus gives us immediate scale in the SME market and we think the complementary nature of the Haven and Opus models can provide a compelling challenger retail proposition for our customers.

Q. Have you got the right team and systems in place to ensure that Opus will join the group with minimal disruption?

A. Yes, Jonathan Kini, who leads our retail business has a great depth of experience in SME markets and integration. He has strengthened his team to ensure we have the expertise required to make this a very successful transition as Opus becomes a member of the Drax family.

However, I’m in no way complacent about the challenges, that’s why we developed a plan to embed Opus covering everything from IT to communications. It’s vital we get this right and that our new colleagues become part of delivering our new Group strategy and share in our values. Clearly I also want both Haven and Opus customers to continue experiencing high levels of service along with the benefits of a more comprehensive retail offer.

Q. How is Drax Power different to when you joined?

A. In many ways Drax is now a very different place to what it was when I joined Drax more than ten years ago. The fact that in 2016 65% of our output was renewable is something I’m very proud of, and right across the power station you can actually see the difference that using compressed wood pellets has made: huge storage domes, specially designed train wagons, and a visitor centre and guides explaining the latest chapter in the Drax story.

Essentially today the power station operates as two power stations: a reliable, flexible, renewable generator producing electricity for businesses and homes and a fossil fuel generator providing system support and security of supply.

Q. You have highlighted the role that Drax coal units can play in system support and ancillary services – what is this and why is it important?

A. Increasing levels of intermittent renewables and inflexible nuclear present the grid with a challenge, and for Drax, opportunities.

When the grid needs capacity our coal units have the flexibility to turn on and off, and ramp up and down responding to demand as weather and time of day determine the availability of wind and solar. It is already common place for Drax to “two-shift” the coal units; using them to provide flexible, responsive power, rather than baseload.

But it’s not just about generation – a well-functioning grid needs other services too. 2017 will see Drax seeking further opportunities to provide the electricity grid with this increasingly important system support.

Q. Did the result of the UK’s EU referendum have any impact on the business?

A. Our business model is largely unaffected by the decision to leave the EU. We will continue to generate and sell power in the UK. We purchase a significant amount of the fuel we require in foreign currency and our long-term hedging strategy – five years ahead – has protected us against any negative impacts of exchange rate fluctuations for the medium-term.

Q. Has the change in the UK Government resulted in any different signals being sent out to the renewables sector?

A. I think that still remains to be seen. We have to look at the huge changes that have happened in Government since the EU referendum as a potential opportunity for us as we continue to make the case for investment in further biomass upgrades.

What is clear is that the focus is still very much on affordable energy. In 2016, Imperial College London and the economic consultancy NERA published new research that we commissioned. It showed that when whole system costs are factored in biomass is the cheapest large scale renewable technology. If Government applied this method of support to future CfD auctions, consumers could benefit by up to £2.2 billion.

As we take forward our new strategy we will also be clearly communicating our plans for rapid response gas power stations and how the system support they will provide contributes to decarbonising the UK’s energy system.


Q. What are the latest plans to convert the remaining generating units that run on coal?

A. We have now delivered on our original strategy to upgrade three generating units to run on compressed wood pellets. However, we would like to do more, and have consistently said that with the right conditions we stand ready to convert further units.

The transformation we’ve been through has meant we’ve learnt a huge amount over the last few years, and there’s no doubt that for future upgrades we can carry them out quicker and more cost-effectively.

Q. Why do you think questions around the sustainability of biomass continue to be raised?

A. I think many companies involved in the sourcing and supply of sustainable products will face questions in this area. What we will do is continue to be open and honest about all aspects of how our business operates including sustainability. Much of that evidence can be seen in this annual report, from our own stringent sustainability policy, to how we comply with the UK Government’s sustainability legislation criteria.

However, we are never complacent and for example each new pellet supplier to Drax is fully and independently audited before a contract is signed and our existing suppliers are audited at least once every three years.

Q. Which other business roles do you have outside of Drax and how do they help the Group

A. I’m a non-executive director at the Eaton Corporation and also the Court of the Bank of England. I think it’s important to have roles outside the business, as long as they allow you to get the balance right and these do. So, clearly they should in no way be a distraction from the “day job”, but worth an investment of time that allows you to see how others operate and whether there are lessons that we can learn or best practice that we can adopt.

Q. What’s the feeling around the Board table?

A. I’d say it’s one of excitement at the opportunities our new Group strategy and acquisitions present for the future. While there’s obviously satisfaction that we’ve delivered on what we initially set out to do – upgrade three generating units to run on compressed wood pellets, there is certainly no feeling of “job done”.

In the months ahead the Board will rightly want to see clear and positive progress as we work to boost our retail offer through Opus Energy and develop our plans to build four rapid response gas power stations.

View the Drax Group plc annual report and accounts

The people behind the power

Drax Group may have been built with Drax Power Station at its core, but today it’s a set of integrated companies, helping to change the way energy is generated, supplied and used, to build a better future.

At the heart of each part of the business – from creating the fuel to power the station’s boilers to managing the supply of electricity, gas and renewable heating fuel to customers – is people.

Here we meet some of those people working behind the scenes.

Robert Gatlin, Operations Supervisor, Amite BioEnergy, Drax Biomass

robert_bw“I was a student in the Process Operations Technology programme at Southwest Mississippi Community College and Drax came to the school to recruit new grads. They were introducing a new technology I’d never heard of and it sparked my interest.

“The idea of using biomass to produce electricity on such a large scale was fascinating, so I joined Drax Biomass in 2014. I was unaware biomass was being used to produce electricity – it’s very exciting to be part of something this big and cutting edge.

“One of the most interesting things I’ve discovered working here is the way moisture affects nearly everything in the pelletising process. We really have to work diligently to ensure our moisture levels are where they need to be in every stage of producing a pellet.”

Rachel Grima, Sustainability Analyst, Drax Group

rachael_bw“I’ve always wanted to work in renewable energy and I studied life cycle analysis during my degree. I started looking for jobs in renewable energy, and as the biggest generator of renewable energy in the UK, Drax was an obvious choice!

“Today my job involves assessing and interpreting sustainability data for all the biomass we use. Our team uses this data to assess if a supplier meets our sustainability policy and regulation.

“I’d never looked very much at transport emissions, so I find it really interesting. You can move 30,000 tonnes of wood pellets in one ship, but it would take over 1,000 trucks to move that many, creating far more greenhouse gas emissions. Since joining the team, I’ve been really surprised to see how driving small efficiencies in a supply chain can create real savings in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Stephen Wilkinson, Turbine Maintenance Technician, Drax Power Station

Stephen Wilkinson, Turbine Maintenance Technician
I’ve always enjoyed building and fixing things. Given that my father and both grandfathers were in engineering – one of them even working at Drax during its construction – I had a strong drive to get into engineering. Living locally, it seemed the biggest and best place to work.

“I’m a Turbine Maintenance Technician, so I act as the link between the turbine support group and the main station planning and maintenance teams. I start the day early by looking through the list of overnight defects, focusing on the turbine area. After this I’m out of the office having a look at the issues to determine whether the station maintenance team or the turbine support group will carry out the repair work. From this point on every day is different.

“The recent changes Drax has made to adapt to a rapidly changing energy market has affected most people at the station. For me, seeing the major turbine upgrades take place has been extremely interesting. I started as an apprentice and then as a fitter, working on the turbine outages, seeing these upgrades first-hand. This has moved on to the point where I have been lucky enough to visit a number of the turbine manufacturing facilities in the UK and Germany.”

Gemma Baker, SME Customer Service Delivery Manager, Haven Power 


“I joined Haven Power in July 2007 as a Customer Service Advisor. I’d never worked in the energy industry before and thought it sounded interesting – Haven caught my eye as it was a new company which excited me. Being part of and contributing to a growing company was right up my street!

“Now I’m responsible for delivering a consistent and valued account management service to our electricity customers across all the small- to medium enterprise (SME) segments. This includes everything from billing and cash collection, to renewals and query and complaint resolution. I’ve been at Haven for nine and a half years now!”

Sam French, Customer Service Administrator Apprentice, Opus Energy


“Before joining [Opus Energy] I didn’t know anything about the energy industry – now I know about different supplier competitors, how an electricity supply contract is agreed and registered, and how we actually apply for a supply. I’ve learnt so much about different aspects of the energy industry, too.

“I haven’t had that much involvement with the Drax Group yet, but I’ve enjoyed looking into the business. I’ve found it really interesting to learn how they’ve managed to transition from a non-renewable company to one that is now producing more renewable than fossil fuel power – which is amazing.”

Amy Carton, Sales and Marketing Executive, Billington Bioenergy


 “I’m responsible for all aspects of internal and external marketing and communications at Billington Bioenergy, a company which supplies wood pellets to commercial and domestic customers who use them to heat their homes or businesses.

“I try to be environmentally conscious and keep my carbon footprint as low as possible – renewable and sustainable heating comes into this. It’s wonderful to spend my days promoting the merits of renewable heating. It’s a relatively small industry in the UK in comparison to our European counterparts, but this makes what we do here in Billington Bioenergy quite unique.

“There was quite a bit of information to digest when I first started – for example, ENplus regulations, different types of pellets, how wood pellet boilers work… it was a big learning curve!”

Find out about careers and apprenticeships within Drax Group:

You won’t recognise this powder but you will know what it’s used for

Chances are, wherever you’ve been today, you’ve never been further than a few feet away from gypsum. It’s equally likely, however, you don’t know what gypsum is. You might not recognise it in its raw form – a soft, chalky white mineral made up of calcium and sulphur. But you will recognise the things it’s used in: buildings, food, fertilisers – the list goes on.

It’s a hugely versatile mineral, and while it’s naturally-occurring, it’s also a by-product of electricity generation.

Where does gypsum come from?

Gypsum is formed naturally when lakes or lagoons with a high amount of calcium and sulphates evaporate. This evaporation leaves behind layers of sediments, which eventually harden into a mineral (gypsum) which can then be mined.

It’s also sometimes found on the earth’s surface, where it can give rise to spectacular natural environments like the White Sands Desert in New Mexico, or slowly crystallise underground into formations like the Cave of the Crystals in Chihuahua, Mexico.

But gypsum can also be formed as a by-product of industrial processes – electricity generation being one. When coal is used to generate electricity it releases sulphur. At Drax Power Station flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) technology removes up to 90% of that sulphur dioxide, which takes the form of gypsum – a lot of it. In 2016, 80,000 tonnes of gypsum was produced and sold by Drax.

Today that gypsum is sold to just one supplier who uses it to make plasterboard, but there are a number of varied uses for this versatile mineral.


One of gypsum’s most abiding uses in human society has been in construction. In ancient times, it was used widely for making cement, or as a construction material in its own right – the interior of the Great Pyramids of Giza are lined with gypsum.

Today, it’s still a prominent feature of the building industry. Gypsum is the key component in plasterboard, which is produced by passing a gypsum paste between two sheets of paper. When the paper sets, the resulting gypsum sandwich forms the tough and ubiquitous plasterboard. Today, all gypsum created at Drax Power Station is used to create plasterboard.

It’s also a core ingredient in several forms of cement making and can – in its paste form – be applied as a plaster covering for existing walls and surfaces.

nobler Wohnung in Paris - real estate


After its use in construction, gypsum’s most important historical use is as a fertiliser. Gypsum is rich in sulphur, which plants – in particular oil and legume crops – need for healthy growth (it’s the same reason why volcanic soils are particularly fertile). Gypsum’s high calcium content also helps strengthen plant cell walls and aids in the absorption of nutrients. More than just helping the plants, gypsum fertiliser can also help reduce soil toxicity and improve its structure by allowing water to be absorbed and to drain more efficiently.


Beyond its many practical uses, gypsum also has a long history in the fine arts. Gypsum in its plaster form (often called plaster of Paris, after the Montmartre hill where it was originally quarried) can be used for sculpting and decorative ornamentation.

When left in its solid form, gypsum is known as alabaster, and has been used for millennia in monumental sculpting, often as a softer alternative to marble. Alabaster sculptures and statues have been produced by ancient societies in Egypt, Syria and Byzantium.

Gypsum powder has also been used as an ingredient in colours in delicate inks used in medieval illuminations as well as common blackboard chalk.

Little hands of kid painting on the plaster soft focus.

Cooking and brewing

The presence of nutrients like calcium in gypsum makes it an important ingredient in several recipes, including in making certain kinds of tofu. But it has a more interesting role in brewing.

The taste of beer is determined in part by the ‘hardness’ of the water used in the process. The higher the mineral content in water, the harder the water. ‘Soft’ water can be used to make sweet beers like pilsners, but if you want to make a bitter beer, gypsum can be added to harden the water with its high sulphur and calcium content, which in turn strengthens the flavour.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that only naturally-occurring gypsum is used in cooking and brewing. Gypsum acquired through desulphurisation processes is only used in industrial contexts like building.

The food industry. Glass beer bottles moving on conveyor


As it is malleable and sets quickly (sometimes within just a few minutes), gypsum has proven an ideal material for sculpting casts and splints. And anyone who has braces fitted knows only too well the unpleasant feeling of a plaster mould settling over the inside of their mouths. That’s gypsum too.

With an end date fixed for coal, it’s already a diminishing form of electricity generation. This in turn means less gypsum will created as a by-product and sold to industry.

And while this means there’ll be less of a connection between what your home is built with and what powers it, it won’t mean that you’re any less connected to gypsum every day. Gypsum has been a part of life for a long time, unlike coal, it’s one that will stick around.

Inside the blast room

When you want to clean a plate, you squirt on some soap and scrub it until the dirt’s gone. When you want to clean a steam turbine, you turn off a generating unit, disconnect the turbine, take it to a special chamber and hose it down with a combination of compressed air and tiny particles. Got it?

Welcome to the world of the blast room.

What is the blast room?

The blast room is a self-contained facility at Drax Power Station where equipment is brought during outages to be cleaned. And to be cleaned, this equipment needs to be sprayed with a mixture of compressed air and an abrasive – such as aluminium oxide, or what is known as glass bead (grit or sand).

Key features include a hose that fires the mixture of “grit” and air, and an air extraction system which filters dust from the blast room at a rate of 14,000 cubic feet per minute (CFM). To put that in perspective, a typical bathroom fan extracts air at around 70 CFM – 200 times slower. To make extra sure that workers are safe when using the blast room, they wear personal protective equipment (PPE), which comes fitted with a filtration system that provides breathable air.

But why does anything need to be blasted in the first place? To answer that, you need to consider the type of machinery in a power plant and the work it does to power your home.


 What happens inside the blast room?

Consider the steam turbines – arguably the heart of any power plant – they’re consistently operating under extreme conditions.

“Each of the six turbine shaft lines weighs 300 tonnes and spins at 3,000 rpm. The high pressure turbine operates in steam conditions of 165 bar and temperatures of 565 degrees centigrade,” explains Andrew Storr, Turbine Engineer and head of the workshop, in which the blast room is located.

The steam turbines use the movement of the steam produced by the boilers on site (powered by biomass or coal) to turn the blades of the turbines, which then turn electricity-producing generators. The productivity – and profitability – of the whole plant hinges on maximising the efficiency of these units, and the team goes to great lengths to improve this, even if it amounts to seemingly tiny percentage increases.

“If we can squeeze another half a percent of efficiency out of any of our units, those gains could add up to millions of pounds of savings,” says Luke Varley, Lead Engineer in the Drax Turbine Team. That’s where the blast room comes in. “Blasting enables integrity inspections to be conducted, but also, in conjunction with our blasting team, we developed a polishing process that returns the turbine steam path surface back to a like-new condition,” he says.

The ultimate aim is to make each turbine’s internal surface as clean and smooth as possible. This way, as steam passes over the surface, losses due to friction between steam and plant are reduced as much as possible. Varley explains: “If you imagine taking a rough surface and running fluid over it, the fluid would flow far quicker and therefore more efficiently if the surface was smooth. These micro losses within the steam turbine are what we are chasing”.

Sometimes, in addition to improving operating efficiency, the blast room is used for removing residue from components in order to discover whether maintenance is required.

“At high operating temperatures, the alloy steel that everything’s made of creates an oxidised blue blush which we have to blast away with our grit blaster,” says Storr. “It’s like ‘rust’ for want of a better word. We’ve got to get that off so that we can properly look at the part and determine whether it needs repairing.”

Keeping these components clean is important. Drax provides around 7% of Great Britain’s power and for the whole process to work efficiently each part needs to be looked after. Sometimes that means locking it in a room and blasting it with a whole lot of grit.

4 firsts for Britain’s power system

fishing boat and wind turbines

It’s no secret 2016 was a year of change. But beyond the high stakes political changes were events that indicate a shift of a similar size (if far less controversial) – the move to a decarbonised power network.

In the last three months of 2016 this change was characterised by four ‘firsts’ in the history of Britain’s power network. Each one signals a continuing trend that could offer a sign of what’s to come in the future.

The findings come from Electric Insights, a quarterly report from researchers at Imperial College London, commissioned by Drax. It tracks the rises and falls of the power generation system in England, Scotland and Wales, plus its environmental impact.


1. Wind power reached record output but was down overall

One of the most interesting events was the way the wind blew – both a lot and not very much. 2016 was the first ever year that wind generated more power than coal. And a large part of that was thanks to the weather.

On the 23rd December, Storm Barbara hit the UK, bringing strong winds of up to 90 miles per hour. As a result, wind output produced more than 10GW for the first time ever, beating the previous record of 9.4GW set in 2014. At its peak, wind power met 37% of British demand, generating enough electricity for 15 million people – or everyone (and everything) north of Nottingham.

But despite these peaks, over the full quarter wind output was in fact 7% lower than the same time period in 2015. So while it was a quarter that showed how important a part of our power make up wind is right now and will be in the future, it also showed how much it depends on the weather.

The cliffs at Dover, UK

2. Britain exported more power to France than it imported

For the first time in six years Britain exported more electricity to France than it imported. Electricity flows between the two countries via an undersea interconnector called the Interconnexion France-Angleterre – and normally we accept more from the French nuclear generators and its other power sources than we send back. That changed at the end of 2016.

More than a dozen of France’s nuclear power stations where turned off after safety checks found a flaw in their design. While urgent maintenance took place during the last few months of 2016, British electricity generators exported power to meet French demand – taking advantage of higher-than-usual electricity prices on the other side of the English Channel. In fact, Britain exported more in one week in November than over the whole of 2014 and 2015 combined.

Coal spinner

3. Carbon emissions were at a 60-year low

Low carbon energy sources keep on rising as a proportion of the UK’s total output and in the last quarter of 2016 this meant carbon emissions fell to their lowest autumn level for 60 years. Overall in 2016, coal generation fell by 61% as a mixture of low gas prices and the Carbon Price Floor continued to force it off the system. Low carbon power sources grew to fill the gap, contributing an average of 40% of the UK’s power, while gas generation was up by more than 50%.

More than that, the quarter also saw another record – Britain’s cleanest Christmas in history. Up to 81% of Britain’s power was generated by low carbon sources, and the share of nuclear, biomass, hydro, wind and solar did not fall below 60% during the three days between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day.

8th November 2016 electricity peaked at more than £1500 per MWh

4. Electricity prices hit a new peak, but also dipped below zero

Electricity prices reached their highest in a decade: £1,528 per MWh. But they didn’t stay there – for nineteen hours during the quarter, they also dropped below zero. Negative energy prices occur when there is low demand and power being generated from inflexible sources (for example the current British nuclear fleet, plus wind and solar), exceeds the amount needed. When this happens, generators have to pay to offload the excess electricity, which means Elexon – the body that handles payments in the balancing market – is essentially managing a market that’s paying below zero for electricity.

These extremes raise the question of whether such price volatility is the new normal. As more renewable energy comes onto the network, its sensitivity to the elements increases, which in turn can increase volatility. The answer is: possibly.

A man at Drax Power Station looking at a biomass storage dome

What does this mean for the future?

The number of firsts in Britain’s power system signifies the scale of change it’s currently seeing. With the end date for coal coming ever closer, the country is increasingly realising the importance of exploring – and using – lower-carbon fuels to generate its electricity. Given the pace of change we’ve already seen, by the time we reach the last few months of 2017, Britain may well be welcoming in another new range of electricity firsts.

Explore the data in detail by visiting

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.

Your neighbourhood electricity network

Engineers from Electricity North West fixing electricity wires.

Britain’s electricity network is a lot like its roads. For long distance, high-speed journeys, the road network has motorways – the electricity network’s equivalent is the National Grid, which transfers power across the country at extremely high voltages (between 400,000-132,000 volts) and high speeds.

For shorter journeys at progressively lower speeds, the traffic network has ‘A’ and ‘B’ roads. These are the regional distribution networks.

These regional distribution networks take power at 132,000 volts and transform it down in stages to 230 volts and make the link from the National Grid to local distribution systems that deliver electricity to homes and businesses.

And while these A and B roads of electricity may be one of the most important parts of getting electricity from power station to plug, very few people spare them any thought.

Electricity in the north west

“When the government first privatised the electricity network in 1989, it set up different distribution regions to provide national coverage through a series of similarly-sized regions,” says Pete Emery, Senior Director of Electricity North West.

Today each part of the UK is served by one of 14 different regional networks and in the north west, across the Pennines from where Drax Power Station operates in North Yorkshire, that’s the job of Electricity North West. It was formed in 1995 and today delivers around 23 terawatts of power to 2.2 million homes and 200,000 business every year.

It does that using a vast network of more than 13,000 km of overhead cables, 44,000 km of underground cables (making it the second most underground electricity network in the UK behind London) and more than 34,000 transformers, which work to convert the electricity from transmission voltage to one that can be used in UK homes.

The scale of infrastructure needed to create these regional networks mean that each one is a ‘natural monopoly’. In this case, it’s a monopoly that benefits customers.

Top of houses buildings in Manchester, England, Europe.

A ‘natural monopoly’

“A natural monopoly is when the cost of duplicating the assets needed to provide the service outweighs the benefits of efficiency that having competition would provide,” explains Emery. “So it is in the public interest to have only one provider.”

For decades, each regional distribution network has operated the same way, delivering power consistently to UK homes. But as the country moves into the future of cleaner, more sustainable energy, these grids are changing rapidly.

The potential proliferation of battery technologies, and the increasing variation of power sources and their demands on the grid mean changes are in store for distributors like Electricity North West.

One such factor already having an effect is embedded generation. Across the country there are sources of electricity generation that aren’t connected to regional distribution networks – for example, private solar panels on domestic roofs, wind turbines on private land, or small-scale power stations connected to a single, private distribution network. And when there is excess electricity generated from these sources, it can be sold back to electricity suppliers. In the north west, this embedded generation is fed back into Emery’s network.

“In our region alone, we have 2,200 MW of embedded generation – more than half the capacity of Drax Power Station – which means we already manage and control the power this input brings to the electricity system,” says Emery. “They are invisible to National Grid. This is a radical change and it’s happening now.”

Regardless of what’s to come, what’s certain is there’ll be traffic on the A roads of electricity.