Author: Alice Roberts

4 of the longest running electrical objects

How long do your electrical devices last? We’re not talking about battery life, but the overall lifetime of the items we use every day that are powered by electricity.

It’s accepted that today’s electrical devices have short life spans, in part a symptom of rapidly evolving technology fuelling the need for constant consumer updates and in part a result of planned obsolescence (devices being manufactured to fail within a set number of years to encourage repeat purchases). Electrical devices aren’t purchased with the belief they will last a lifetime.

But it hasn’t always been this way. Before rapid technological development and the rise of fast consumerism, devices were built to last.

Over the relatively short history of electrical appliances, there are tools and equipment that have operated for decades. Some of these remain in operation today with hardly any alterations, but for a few tweaks here and there to upgrade or preserve.

Built to last, here are a few of the longest running electrical inventions.

The Oxford Electric Bell located in the Clarendon Laboratory, University of Oxford.

1840 – The Oxford Electric Bell

The Oxford Electric Bell is not your typical bell – not just in how it looks, but in the fact it has been in constant operation since the mid 19th Century. It consists of two primitive batteries called ‘dry piles’ with bells fitted at each end and a metal ball that vibrates between them to very quietly, continuously ring.

Its original purpose is unidentified, but what is known is that the bell is the result of an experiment put on by the London instrument-manufacturing firm Watkins and Hill in 1840. Acquired by Robert Walker, a physics professor at the University of Oxford in the mid 1800s, it’s displayed at Oxford’s Clarendon Laboratory which explains why it’s also known as the Clarendon Pile.

The exact make-up of the dry piles is unknown, as no one wants to tamper with them to investigate their composition out for fear of ending the bell’s 179-year-long streak. As a result, confusion remains as to why The Oxford Electric Bell has remained in operation for so long.

Souter Lighthouse, Tyneside, England.

1871 – Souter Lighthouse in South Shields, UK

The lamp in the Souter lighthouse, situated between the rivers Tyne and Wear, was the most advanced of its day when it was first constructed. Designed to use an alternating electric current, it was the first purpose-built, electrically powered lighthouse in the world. Although no longer in operation today, it ran unchanged for nearly 50 years.

The light was generated using carbon arc lamps, and it originally produced a beam of red light that would come on once every five seconds.

Souter’s original lamp operated unchanged from 1871 to 1914, when it was replaced by more conventional oil lamps. It was altered again to run on mains electric power in 1952 and was finally deactivated in 1988.

1896 – The Isle of Man’s Manx Electric Railway

Tourism hit the Isle of Man in the 1880s and with it came the construction of hotels and boarding houses. Two businessmen saw this as an opportunity to purchase a large estate on the island and develop it into housing and a pleasure development. The Manx Parliament approved the sale in 1892 on one condition: that a road and a tramway be built to give people access.

Snaefell mountain railway station, Isle of Man.

It was decided that the tram would be electric, and work began in the spring of 1893, with the tram system up and running by September of that year. Although the track and its cars have been extended and updated over time, the first three cars remain the longest running electric tramcars in the world.

Photograph by Dick Jones (centennialbulb.org)

1902 – The Centennial Bulb

The unassuming Centennial Bulb has been working in the Livermore, California Fire Department for 117 years. The bulb was first installed in 1902 in the department’s hose cart house, but was later moved to Livermore’s Fire Station 6, where it has been illuminated for more than a million hours.

Throughout its life the Centennial Bulb has seen just two interruptions: for a week in 1937 when the Firehouse was refurbished, and in May 2013 when it was off for nine and a half hours due to a failed power supply. Made by the Shelby Electric Company, the hand-blown bulb previously shone at 60 watts but has since been dimmed to 4 watts.

While this means it isn’t able to actually illuminate much, it is a reminder that despite the disposable nature of many modern electrical devices, it’s possible to build electrical items that last.

5 exciting energy innovations that you should know about in 2020

As we head into the 2020s, it’s an exciting time for energy. A deeper level of climate consciousness has led to crucial changes in populations’ attitudes and thinking around how we power our lives – adapting to a new set of energy standards has become essential.

It’s also driving innovation in energy technology, leading to the rise of a number of emerging technologies designed to support the global energy transition in new ways. From domestic solar and wind generation, to leaps forward in recycling and aeroplane fuel, here are five new energy ideas in the 2020s pipeline.

Miniature turbines for your garden

Think of a wind farm and you might think of giant structures located in remote, windswept areas, but that’s quickly changing.

IceWind is developing residential wind turbines that use the same generator-principal as large-scale wind farms, just on a much smaller scale. A set of three outer and three inner vertical blades rotate when the wind passes through them, providing spinning mechanical energy that passes through the generator and is converted to electricity.

Constructed from durable stainless steel, carbon fibre and aluminium, the CW1000 model can handle wind speeds of up to 134 miles per hour. To ensure they’re fit for domestic use, the units are adapted to have a maximum height of just over 3 metres and make less than 40 decibels of noise – roughly equivalent to quiet conversation.

The Icelandic company says it aims to decentralise and democratise energy generation by making wind power accessible to people anywhere in the world.

Expanding solar to cover more surfaces

As solar technology becomes more widespread and easier to implement, more communities are turning to a prosumer approach and generating their own power.

Roof panels to date have been the most common way to domestically capture and convert rays, but Solecco is taking it a step further, offering solar roof tiles. These work in the same way as roof panels, using photovoltaic cells made of silicon to convert sunlight into electricity. But by covering more surface area, entire roofs can be used to generate solar energy, rather than single panels.

Environmental Street Furniture takes it a step further by bringing small scale solar generation into many aspects of the urban environment such as smart benches, rubbish bins, and solar lighting in green spaces. This opens up opportunities for powering cities, including incorporating charging stations and network connectivity, which in turn enables social power sharing.

Re-purposing plastic 

Global recycling rates currently sit at approximately 18%, indicating there are still further steps to take in ensuring single-use products are eliminated.

Plastic is a major target in the war on disposal, and for good reason. By 2015, the world had produced over seven billion tonnes of plastic. Greenology is tackling this by harnessing a process called pyrolysis to turn plastic into power. By heating waste at a very high temperature without oxygen, the plastic is breaks down without combusting.

This process produces bio-oils, which can be used to create biofuels. The benefits of this innovative approach to waste are twofold: not only can plastic be repurposed, which minimises the lasting impact single-use plastic has on the planet, but the creation of biofuel offers a power source for everything from transport to generating electricity.

Storing heat for the home

Decarbonising heating is one of the global challenges yet to have a clear answer. Pumped Heat Ltd (PHL) is developing a potential solution with its heat battery technology. The company has found a solution that enables its devices to charge up and store electricity during ‘off-peak’ hours (when electricity is at its cheapest) and then use this energy to generate heating and hot water for homes as it is required. As the grid continues to decarbonise, and as renewable power becomes cheaper and more accessible, the electricity used to charge these units will approach zero carbon content.

The heat battery technology utilises vacuum insulation, losing 10 times less heat than a conventional night storage heater. In contrast, air sourced heat pumps (a more commonly used type of heat pump), operate in real time when a home needs heating. They take water at its delivery temperature (which can be very cold, during the winter months) and heat it using electricity available at that time. Pumped Heat’s storage system instead ensures there is always heat available, maintaining a consistent temperature for hot water or central heating, rather than just when there is an excess of electricity.

The company claims the benefit of using a heat battery system is that it is cheaper than an oil or LPG boiler, in a world where renewable electricity production, both domestic and on a national level, is only set to increase.

Waste-powered planes

As some of the most fossil fuel-reliant industries in the world, travel and transport are actively seeking alternative and more sustainable ways to keep them powered in long run.

Velocys aims to do this using waste. The company is developing sustainable fuels for aviation and heavy goods transport, using the Fischer-Tropsch method of gasifying waste. This involves turning waste materials – such as domestic refuse and woody waste – into clean jet fuel using a catalytic chemical reaction, where synthesis gases (carbon monoxide and hydrogen) are converted into liquid hydrocarbons that can then be used for fuel.

Not only does this make use of waste products that could have ended up in landfill, but it produces much cleaner fuels, that emit less particle matter and harmful pollutants into the atmosphere.

As we enter a new decade of invention, the world is focusing on more sustainable alternatives to power our lives, and these innovative solutions to current environmental issues will continue to inspire creativity.

Changing forest structure in Virginia and North Carolina

Photos: Roanoke Rapids area near the North Carolina, Virginia border, courtesy of Enviva.

Forest owners have responded to the recovery in pine saw-timber markets, since the global financial crisis of 2008, by planting more forest and investing more in the management of their land. The same period has witnessed increased demand from the biomass sector which has replaced declining need for wood from pulp and paper markets.

The area of timberland (actively managed productive forest) has increase by around 89,000 hectares (ha) since 2010. This change is due to three important factors: new planting on agricultural land; the planting of low-grade self-seeded areas with more productive improved pine; and the re-classification by the US Forest Service (USFS) of some areas of naturally regenerated pine from woodland to timberland.

The 2018 data shows that pine forest makes up 46% of the timberland area, of which 61% is planted and the remainder naturally regenerated. Hardwoods cover 43% of the timberland area, with 93% of this naturally regenerated. The remaining area is mixed stands.

Composition of timberland area

Since 2000 there have been some significant changes in the composition of the timberland area with a transition from hardwood to softwood. Pine has increased from 39% of the total area in 2000 to 46% in 2018 and hardwood has decreased from 50% to 43% over the same period.

All pine areas have increased since 2000 with naturally regenerated pine increasing by 13,000 ha and planted pine by 340,000 ha since 2000. Mixed stands have declined by 6,500 ha as some of these sites have been replanted with improved pine to increase growth and saw-timber production.

The biggest change has been in the hardwood areas where there has been a decline of around 314,000 ha, despite the total area of timberland increasing by 31,000 ha.

Change in forest type

This change has been driven by private forest owners (representing 91% of the total timberland area), seeking to gain a better return on investment from their forest land.

Hardwood markets have declined since the 2008 recession and demand for hardwood saw-timber has not recovered. Demand for pine saw-timber has rebounded and is now as strong as pre-crisis.

Pine also offers much faster growth rates and higher total volumes in a much shorter time frame (typically 25-35 years compared to 75-80 years for hardwoods).

The decision to change species is similar to a farmer changing their agricultural crops based on market demand and prices for each product. Where forests are managed for revenue generation then it is reasonable to optimise the land and crop for this objective. This can be a significant positive, from a carbon perspective more carbon is sequestered in a shorter time frame and more carbon is stored in long term wood products, if the quantity if saw-timber is increased.

Increased revenue generation also helps to maintain the forest area (rather than conversion to urban development, agriculture or other uses).

A potential negative is the change in habitat from a pure hardwood stand to a pure pine stand, each providing a different ecosystem and supporting a different range of flora and fauna. There is no conclusive evidence that one forest type is better or worse than the other; there is a great deal of variety of each type.

Some hardwood forests are rich in species and biodiversity, others can be unremarkable. The key is not to endanger or risk losing any species or sensitive habitat and to ensure that any conversion only occurs where there is no loss of biodiversity and no negative impact to the ecosystem.

It is not clear whether all of the lost hardwood stands have been directly converted to pine forests, some hardwood stands may have been lost to other land uses (urban and other land has increased by 400,000 ha). Some may have been directly converted to pine by forest owners encouraged by the increase in pine saw-timber demand and prices.

Whatever the primary driver of this change it is clearly not being driven by the biomass sector.

Change in forest type – timing

The chart above demonstrates that the biggest change, loss of hardwood and increase in planted pine, occurred between 2000 and 2012, prior to the operation of the pellet mills. Since 2012, there has been no significant loss of natural hardwood and only a small decline in planted hardwood.

Read the full report: Catchment Area Analysis of Forest Management and Market Trends: Enviva Pellets Ahoskie, Enviva Pellets Northampton, Enviva Pellets Southampton (UK metric version). Explore Enviva’s supply chain via Track & Trace. This is part of a series of catchment area analyses around the forest biomass pellet plants supplying Drax Power Station with renewable fuel. The series includes: Estonia, Morehouse Bioenergy, Amite Bioenergy, and the Drax forestry team’s review of the Chesapeake report on Enviva’s area of operations.

14 moments that electrified history

Electricity is such a universal and accepted part of our lives it’s become something we take for granted. Rarely do we stop to consider the path it took to become ubiquitous, and yet through the course of its history there have been several eureka moments and breakthrough inventions that have shaped our modern lives. Here are some of the defining moments in the development of electricity and power.

2750 BC – Electricity first recorded in the form of electric fish

Ancient Egyptians referred to electric catfish as the ‘thunderers of the Nile’, and were fascinated by these creatures. It led to a near millennia of wonder and intrigue, including conducting and documenting crude experiments, such as touching the fish with an iron rod to cause electric shocks.

500 BC – The discovery of static electricity

Around 500 BC Thales of Miletus discovered that static electricity could be made by rubbing lightweight objects such as fur or feathers on amber. This static effect remained unknown for almost 2,000 years until around 1600 AD, when William Gilbert discovered static electricity in earnest.

1600 AD – The origins of the word ‘electricity’

The Latin word ‘electricus’, which translates to ‘of amber’ was used by the English physician, William Gilbert to describe the force exerted when items are rubbed together. A few years later, English scientist Thomas Browne translated this into ‘electricity’ in his written investigations in the field.

1751 – Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Experiments and Observations on Electricity’

This book of Benjamin Franklin’s discoveries made about the behaviour of electricity was published in 1751. The publication and translation of American founding father, scientist and inventor’s letters would provide the basis for all further electricity experimentation. It also introduced a host of new terms to the field including positive, negative, charge, battery and electric shock.

1765 – James Watt transforms the Industrial Revolution

Watt studies Newcomen’s engine

James Watt transformed the Industrial Revolution with the invention of a modified Newcome engine, now known as the Watt steam engine. Machines no longer had to rely on the sometimes-temperamental wind, water or manpower – instead steam from boiling water could drive the pistons back and forth. Although Watt’s engine didn’t generate electricity, it created a foundation that would eventually lead to the steam turbine – still the basis of much of the globe’s electricity generation today.

James Watt’s steam engine

Alessandro Volta

1800 – Volta’s first true battery

Documented records of battery-like objects date back to 250 BC, but the first true battery was invented by Italian scientist Alessandro Volta in 1800. Volta realised that a current was created when zinc and silver were immersed in an electrolyte – the principal on which chemical batteries are still based today.

1800s – The first electrical cars

Breakthroughs in electric motors and batteries in the early 1800s led to experimentation with electrically powered vehicles. The British inventor Robert Anderson is often credited with developing the first crude electric carriage at the beginning of the 19th century, but it would not be until 1890 that American chemist William Morrison would invent the first practical electric car (though it closer resembled a motorised wagon), boasting a top speed of 14 miles per hour.

Michael Faraday

1831 – Michael Faraday’s electric dynamo

Faraday’s invention of the electric dynamo power generator set the precedent for electricity generation for centuries to come. His invention converted motive (or mechanical) power – such as steam, gas, water and wind turbines – into electromagnetic power at a low voltage. Although rudimentary, it was a breakthrough in generating consistent, continuous electricity, and opened the door for the likes of Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan, whose subsequent discoveries would make large-scale electricity generation feasible.

1879 – Lighting becomes practical and inexpensive

Thomas Edison patented the first practical and accessible incandescent light bulb, using a carbonised bamboo filament which could burn for more than 1,200 hours. Edison made the first public demonstration of his incandescent lightbulb on 31st December 1879 where he stated that, “electricity would be so cheap that only the rich would burn candles.” Although he was not the only inventor to experiment with incandescent light, his was the most enduring and practical. He would soon go on to develop not only the bulb, but an entire electrical lighting system.

Holborn Viaduct power station via Wikimedia

1882 – The world’s first public power station opens

Holborn Viaduct power station, also known as the Edison Electric Light Station, burnt coal to drive a steam turbine and generate electricity. The power was used for Holborn’s newly electrified streetlighting, an idea which would quickly spread around London.

1880s – Tesla and Edison’s current war

Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison waged what came to be known as the current war in 1880s America. Tesla was determined to prove that alternating current (AC) – as is generated at power stations – was safe for domestic use, going against the Edison Group’s opinion that a direct current (DC) – as delivered from a battery – was safer and more reliable.

Inside an Edison power station in New York

The conflict led to years of risky demonstrations and experiments, including one where Tesla electrocuted himself in front of an audience to prove he would not be harmed. The war continued as they fought over the future of electric power generation until eventually AC won.

Nikola Tesla

1901 – Great Britain’s first industrial power station opens

Before Charles Mertz and William McLellan of Merz & McLellan built the Neptune Bank Power Station in Tyneside in 1901, individual factories were powered by private generators. By contrast, the Neptune Bank Power Station could supply reliable, cheap power to multiple factories that were connected through high-voltage transmission lines. This was the beginning of Britain’s national grid system.

1990s – The first mass market electrical vehicle (EV)

Concepts for electric cars had been around for a century, however, the General Motors EV1 was the first model to be mass produced by a major car brand – made possible with the breakthrough invention of the rechargeable battery. However, this EV1 model could not be purchased, only directly leased on a monthly contract. Because of this, its expensive build, and relatively small customer following, the model only lasted six years before General Motors crushed the majority of their cars.

2018 – Renewable generation accounts for a third of global power capacity

The International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) 2018 annual statistics revealed that renewable energy accounted for a third of global power capacity in 2018. Globally, total renewable electricity generation capacity reached 2,351 GW at the end of 2018, with hydropower accounting for almost half of that total, while wind and solar energy accounted for most of the remainder.

The UK needs negative emissions from BECCS to reach net zero – here’s why

Early morning sunrise at Drax Power Station

Reaching the UK’s target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 means every aspect of the economy, from shops to super computers, must reduce its carbon footprint – all the way down their supply chains – as close to zero as possible.

But as the country transforms, one thing is certain: demand for electricity will remain. In fact, with increased electrification of heating and transport, there will be a greater demand for power from renewable, carbon dioxide (CO2)-free sources. Bioenergy is one way of providing this power without reliance on the weather and can offer essential grid-stability services, as provided by Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire.

Close up of electricity pylon tower

Close up of electricity pylon tower

Beyond just power generation, more and more reports highlight the important role the next evolution of bioenergy has to play in a net zero UK. And that is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage or BECCS.

A carbon negative source of power, abating emissions from other industries

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) says negative emissions are essential for the UK to offset difficult-to-decarbonise sectors of the economy and meet its net zero target. This may include direct air capture (DAC) and other negative emissions technologies, as well as BECCS.

BECCS power generation uses biomass grown in sustainably managed forests as fuel to generate electricity. As these forests absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while growing, they offset the amount of COreleased by the fuel when used, making the whole power production process carbon neutral. Adding carbon capture and storage to this process results in removing more CO2 from the atmosphere than is emitted, making it carbon negative.

Pine trees grown for planting in the forests of the US South where more carbon is stored and more wood inventory is grown each year than fibre is extracted for wood products such as biomass pellets

Pine trees grown for planting in the forests of the US South where more carbon is stored and more wood inventory is grown each year than fibre is extracted for wood products such as biomass pellets

This means BECCS can be used to abate, or offset, emissions from other parts of the economy that might remain even as it decarbonises. A report by The Energy Systems Catapult, modelling different approaches for the UK to reach net zero by or before 2050, suggests carbon-intensive industries such as aviation and agriculture will always produce residual emissions.

The need to counteract the remaining emissions of industries such as these make negative emissions an essential part of reaching net zero. While the report suggests that direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS) will also play an important role in bringing CO2 levels down, it will take time for the technology to be developed and deployed at the scale needed.

Meanwhile, carbon capture use and storage (CCUS) technology is already deployed at scale in Norway, the US, Australia and Canada. These processes for capturing and storing carbon are applicable to biomass power generation, such as at Drax Power Station, which means BECCS is ready to deploy at scale from a technology perspective today.

As well as counteracting remaining emissions, however, BECCS can also help to decarbonise other industries by enabling the growth of a different low carbon fuel: hydrogen.

Enabling a hydrogen economy

The CCC’s ‘Hydrogen in a low-carbon economy report’ highlights the needs for carbon zero alternatives to fossil fuels – in particular, hydrogen or H2.

Hydrogen produced in a test tube

Hydrogen produced in a test tube

When combusted, hydrogen only produces heat and water vapour, while the ability to store it for long periods makes it a cleaner replacement to the natural gas used in heating today. Hydrogen can also be stored as a liquid, which, coupled with its high energy density makes it a carbon zero alternative to petrol and diesel in heavy transport.

There are various ways BECCS can assist the creation of a hydrogen economy. Most promising is the use of biomass to produce hydrogen through a method known as gasification. In this process solid organic material is heated to more than 700°C but prevented from combusting. This causes the material to break down into gases: hydrogen and carbon monoxide (CO). The CO then reacts with water to form CO2 and more H2.

While CO2 is also produced as part of the process, biomass material absorbs CO2 while it grows, making the overall process carbon neutral. However, by deploying carbon capture here, the hydrogen production can also be made carbon negative.

BECCS can more indirectly become an enabler of hydrogen production. The Zero Carbon Humber partnership envisages Drax Power Station as the anchor project for CCUS infrastructure in the region, allowing for the production of ‘blue’ hydrogen. Blue hydrogen is produced using natural gas, a fossil fuel. However, the resulting carbon emissions could be captured. The CO2 would then be transported and stored using the same system of pipelines and a natural aquifer under the North Sea as used by BECCS facilities at Drax.

This way of clustering BECCS power and hydrogen production would also allow other industries such as manufactures, steel mills and refineries, to decarbonise.

Lowering the cost of flexible electricity

One of the challenges in transforming the energy system and wider economy to net zero is accounting for the cost of the transition.

The Energy Systems Catapult’s analysis found that it could be kept as low as 1-2% of GDP, while a report by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) projects that deploying BECCS would have little impact on the total cost of the power system if deployed for its negative emissions potential.

The NIC’s modelling found, when taking into consideration the costs and generation capacity of different sources, BECCS would likely be run as a baseload source of power in a net zero future. This would maximise its negative emissions potential.

This means BECCS units would run frequently and for long periods, uninterrupted by changes in the weather, rather than jumping into action to account for peaks in demand. This, coupled with its ability to abate emissions, means BECCS – alongside intermittent renewables such as wind and solar – could provide the UK with zero carbon electricity at a significantly lower cost than that of constructing a new fleet of nuclear power stations.

The report also goes on to say that a fleet of hydrogen-fuelled power stations could also be used to generate flexible back-up electricity, which therefore could be substantially cheaper than relying on a fleet of new baseload nuclear plants.

However, for this to work effectively, decisions need to be made sooner rather than later as to what approach the UK takes to shape the energy system before 2050.

The time to act is now

What is consistent across many different reports is that BECCS will be essential for any version of the future where the UK reaches net zero by 2050. But, it will not happen organically.

Sunset and evening clouds over the River Humber near Sunk Island, East Riding of Yorkshire

Sunset and evening clouds over the River Humber near Sunk Island, East Riding of Yorkshire

A joint Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering Greenhouse Gas Removal report, includes research into BECCS, DACCS and other forms of negative emissions in its list of key actions for the UK to reach net zero. It also calls for the UK to capitalise on its access to natural aquifers and former oil and gas wells for CO2 storage in locations such as the North Sea, as well as its engineering expertise, to establish the infrastructure needed for CO2 transport and storage.

However, this will require policies and funding structures that make it economical. A report by Vivid Economics for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) highlights that – just as incentives have made wind and solar viable and integral parts of the UK’s energy mix – BECCS and other technologies, need the same clear, long-term strategy to enable companies to make secure investments and innovate.

However, for policies to make the impact needed to ramp BECCS up to the levels necessary to bring the UK to net zero, action is needed now. The report outlines policies that could be implemented immediately, such as contracts for difference, or negative emissions obligations for residual emitters. For BECCS deployment to expand significantly in the 2030s, a suitable policy framework will need to be put in place in the 2020s.

Beyond just decarbonising the UK, a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlights that BECCS could be of even more importance globally. Differing scales of BECCS deployment are illustrated in its scenarios where global warming is kept to within 1.5oC levels of pre-industrial levels, as per the Paris Climate agreement.

BECCS has the potential to play a vital role in power generation, creating a hydrogen economy and offsetting other emissions. As it continues to progress, it is becoming increasingly effective and cost efficient, offering a key component of a net zero UK.

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

Mailing of the Annual Report and Accounts 2019, Annual General Meeting and key dates relating to the proposed final dividend

Red British post box set against a hedgerow

RNS: 7279G
Drax Group plc

(“Drax” or the “Company”; Symbol:DRX)

Mailing of the Annual Report and Accounts 2019 and ancillary documents to shareholders

The following documents have been mailed to the registered shareholders of Drax Group plc:

  • Annual Report and Accounts 2019;
  • Notice of the 2020 Annual General Meeting; and
  • Form of Proxy for the 2020 Annual General Meeting.

In accordance with Listing Rule 9.6.1 a copy of each of these documents will shortly be available for viewing on the National Storage Mechanism.

The Annual Report and Accounts 2019 and the Notice of the 2020 Annual General Meeting will also shortly be available as follows:

  • for viewing on the Company’s website, www.drax.com/uk; and/or
  • by writing to the Company Secretary at the Registered Office; Drax Power Station, Selby, North Yorkshire YO8 8PH.

Annual General Meeting

The Company is to hold its Annual General Meeting (AGM) at 11.30am on Wednesday 22 April 2020, at Grocers’ Hall, Princes Street, London EC2R 8AD.

We are monitoring the potential impact of COVID-19 on the arrangements for the AGM. We expect to hold our AGM at the venue stated above and are encouraging all shareholders to vote in advance of the meetings using the proxy facilities set out in the Notice of Meeting. We will update shareholders in the event that alternative arrangements prove to be necessary.


Key dates relating to the proposed final dividend

Detailed below are the key dates regarding the proposed final dividend:

  • 23 April 2020 – ordinary shares marked ex-dividend.
  • 24 April 2020 – record date for entitlement to the dividend.
  • 15 May 2020 – payment date for the dividend.

The proposed rate of the final dividend is 9.5 pence per share.

Brett Gladden
Company Secretary

Estonia catchment area analysis

View from Suur Munamagi over forest landscape in South Estonia.

Estonia is a heavily forested country with a mature forest resource that has been neglected over many years due to political and ownership changes. Management of state and corporate owned forests is now good, but some small privately-owned areas of forest are still poorly managed.

Despite this, both the forest area and the growing stock have been increasing, largely due to new planting and the maturing age class of existing forest.

Forest area has increased from 49% to 52% of the total land, increasing by more than 118 thousand hectares since 2010.

Land use in Estonia

Land use in Estonia [click to view/download]

Over the same period the growing stock increased by 52 million m3, with 60% of this growth in softwood and 40% in hardwood species. The data shows a slight decline in 2018 but this is due to a sampling error and the growing stock is thought to have been maintained at 2017 levels (this should be rectified in the 2019 data when available).

Change in forest growing stock – Estonia

Change in forest growing stock – Estonia [click to view/download]

The forests of Estonia have been going through a period of restitution since the 1990s. Land that had been taken into state ownership during Soviet rule has been given back to private owners. This process was complex and lengthy and limited active management in the forest during this time.

Since 2008, harvesting and management has increased. Private and corporate forest owners have been harvesting forest that had been mature and ready for clear felling. The longer-term harvesting trend has been considerably lower than annual growth (increment) and the maximum sustainable harvesting level, as shown on the chart below.

Annual increment and harvesting levels

Annual increment and harvesting levels [click to view/download]

In 2018 harvesting reached an all time high at just over 14 million m3 and just under the maximum threshold. It is expected to remain at this level as more forest matures and enters the cycle of harvest and regeneration.

Clear cutting (regeneration felling) is the largest operation by volume but thinning (maintenance felling) is the largest by area.

This indicates a forest landscape in balance, with widespread thinning to produce more sawlog trees and a large volume of clear cuts in the mature stands to make way for the next generation of forests.

Reforestation in Estonia. * Note: Since 2014 it has not been compulsory for private and other forest owners to submit reforestation data. [Click to view/download]

Reforestation in Estonia. * Note: Since 2014 it has not been compulsory for private and other forest owners to submit reforestation data. [Click to view/download]

Planting of seedlings is the most common form of regeneration. However, some native hardwood species are strong pioneers and naturally regenerate among the spruce and pine stands. This has led to a change in the species composition of some forests with an increase in hardwoods, although this is relatively small scale and only prevalent among some small private owners that do not invest in clearing unwanted regeneration.

Species mix in Estonian forests [Click to view/download]

Species mix in Estonian forests [Click to view/download]

Markets and prices for forest products

Sunrise and fog over forest landscape in Estonia

Sunrise and fog over forest landscape in Estonia

Pulpwood markets are limited in Estonia and this material has been historically exported to neighbouring Finland and Sweden. Export demand has had a significant impact on prices as can be seen in a spike in 2018 when demand was at its strongest.

The forest industry has been dominated by sawmills and panel board mills. Demand and production in this sector has been increasing and this has kept prices high. There is a substantial differential between sawlog and pulpwood pricing.

Comparison of sawlog and pulpwood prices [click to view/download]

Comparison of sawlog and pulpwood prices [click to view/download]

The pellet industry developed due to the abundance of low-grade fibre available domestically. This included sawmill and forest residues, as well as low grade roundwood from thinnings and clear cuts. Drax’s suppliers use a combination of these feedstock sources as shown below.

Drax feedstocks from Estonia 2018 [click to view download]

Sunrise through forest in Estonia

Sunrise through forest in Estonia

Summary of key questions addressed in the analysis:

Impacts of wood-based bioenergy demand to forest resources:

Forest area / forest cover

No negative impact. Regardless of increasing domestic biomass utilisation for energy and exports, forest area has increased due to afforestation programmes. Forest cover is not as high as forest area, due to temporarily un-stocked area after clear-cut. Despite this, forest cover has continuously increased from 2010–2018.

Growing stock

No negative impact. The total forest growing stock has been increasing for the last two decades. In 2018 the growth slowed or halted (official statistics show a decrease, but this is due to sampling error). In 2018 there was record-high wood demand from Finland, which was driven by high global pulp prices motivating maximal pulp production. This increased harvests to a previously unseen level.

Harvesting levels

Slight increasing impact. During 2004–2011, harvesting levels in Estonia were less than half of the estimated maximum sustainable level. This resulted in an increase in the maximum sustainable harvesting level for the 2011–2020 period. In 2018, the harvesting volumes were at the maximum sustainable level. The main drivers increasing the harvesting volumes have been increased sawmill capacity and production, high demand for pulpwood in Finland and Sweden and improved demand for energy wood. This was a temporary peak and demand has already slowed. Softwood lumber prices have decreased significantly in Europe due to an abundance of wood supply from Central Europe, which has been created by widespread bark beetle and other forest damages. Global pulp prices have also decreased to below 2017 prices.

Forest growth / carbon sequestration potential

Ambivalent impact. The annual increment has grown throughout the 2000–2018 period. Increased fuelwood price has enabled forest management in some of the alder forests that were completely unutilised in the past. Thinnings, both commercial and pre-commercial, accelerate long-term volume growth in forests, leading to increased carbon sequestration. Removal of harvesting residues decreases carbon sequestration since the residues are input to the soil carbon pool. However, the majority of the harvesting residues’ carbon is released to the atmosphere when the biomass decays, so the ultimate impact of harvesting residue collection is minimal if the collection is done on a sustainable level. The sustainability of the collection is determined by how the soil nutrient balance is impacted by collection. This is not accounting for the substitution effect that the harvesting residues may have, by e.g. reducing the need to burn fossil fuels. Utilisation of sawmill by-products does not directly impact forests’ carbon sequestration potential, but it can increase harvesting through improved sawmill overall profitability.

Impacts of wood-based bioenergy demand to forest management practices:

Rotation lengths

Neutral. Forest law regulates minimum forest age for clear-cuts. According to interviews, Riigimetsa Majandamise Keskus (RMK – the Estonian state forest company), often conducts the final felling at the minimum age. Due to the regulation, an increase of wood-based bioenergy demand has not shortened rotations at least in state-managed forests. In forests that are older than the minimum final felling age, sawlog price is a more important driver for final-felling decisions than wood-based bioenergy demand.

Thinning

Increasing impact. The increase of bioenergy demand has increased the demand for small-diameter hardwood, which in turn has increased thinnings in previously unmanaged forest stands. This will increase the availability of good quality sawlogs and will also accelerate the carbon sequestration (tonnes/ha/year) of the forests. However, the total forest carbon stock (tonnes/ha) will be reduced; in unmanaged (e.g. no thinnings) mature stands, the carbon stock is larger than in managed stands of similar age. The carbon stock of a thinned stand will remain below that of an unthinned stand regardless of post-thinning accelerated growth.

Conversion from hardwood to softwood

Neutral. No indication of hardwood conversion to softwood was found.

Impacts of wood-based bioenergy demand to solid wood product (SWP) markets:

Diversion from other wood product markets

Neutral. Production of sawnwood, wood-based panels, pulp and paper products have increased or remained steady, i.e. no evidence of diversion.

Wood prices

Slight increasing impact. During 2017–2018, the price of all roundwood assortments increased notably. The increase was strongest in pulpwood assortments, especially those that are not further processed domestically but are exported to mainly Finland and Sweden. Finnish demand for pulpwood was at a very high level in 2018. This was a temporary trend, however, and prices and demand have since decreased. The price increase for fuelwood was less dramatic, no sharp increases are observed. According to interviews, pellet production was the most important driver of fuelwood prices.

Read the full report: Catchment Area Analysis in Estonia. A 2017 interview with Raul Kirjanen, CEO of Graanul Invest, a wood pellet supplier of Drax operating in Estonia, can be read here. Read how Drax and Graanul work with NGOs when concerns are raised within our supply chain here.

Read more about how bioenergy has no negative impact on Estonia’s forest resources here.

This is part of a series of catchment area analyses around the forest biomass pellet plants supplying Drax Power Station with renewable fuel. Others in the series include: Georgia Mill, Latvia, Chesapeake and Drax’s own, other three mills LaSalle BionergyMorehouse Bioenergy and Amite Bioenergy.

From steel to soil – how industries are capturing carbon

Construction metallic bars in a row

Carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) is a vital technology in the energy industry, with facilities already in place all over the world aiming to eliminate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

However, for decarbonisation to go far enough to keep global warming below 2oC – as per the Paris Climate Agreement – emission reductions are needed throughout the global economy.

From cement factories to farmland, CCUS technology is beginning to be deployed in a wide variety of sectors around the world.

Construction

The global population is increasingly urban and by 2050 it’s estimated 68% of all people will live in cities. For cities to grow sustainably, it’s crucial the environmental impact of the construction industry is reduced.

Construction currently accounts for 11% of all global carbon emissions. This includes emissions from the actual construction work, such as from vehicle exhaust pipes, but a more difficult challenge is reducing embedded emissions from the production of construction materials.

Steel and concrete are emissions-heavy to make; they require intense heat and use processes that produce further emissions. Deploying widespread CCUS in the production of these two materials holds the key to drastically reducing carbon emissions from the built environment.

Steel manufacturing alone, regardless of the electricity used to power production, is responsible for about 7% of global emissions. Projects aimed at reducing the levels of carbon released in production are planned in Europe and are already in motion in the United Arab Emirates.

Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and Masdar, a renewable energy and sustainability company, formed a joint venture in 2013 with the aim of developing commercial-scale CCUS projects.

In its project with Emirates Steel, which began in 2016, about 800,000 tonnes of CO2 is captured a year from the steel manufacturing plant. This is sequestered and used in enhanced oil recovery (EOR). The commercially self-sustaining nature of this project has led to investigation into multiple future industrial-scale projects in the region.

Cement manufacturing, a process that produces as much as 8% of global greenhouse gases, is also experiencing the growth of innovative CCUS projects.

Pouring ready-mixed concrete after placing steel reinforcement to make the road by mixing in construction site

Norcem Cement plant in Brevik, Norway has already begun experimenting with CCUS, calculating that it could capture 400,000 tonnes of CO2 per year and store it under the North Sea. If the project wins government approval, Norcem could commence operations as soon as 2023.

However, as well as reducing emissions from traditional cement manufacturing and the electricity sources that power it, a team at Massachusetts Institute of Technology is exploring a new method of cement production that is more CCUS friendly.

By pre-treating the limestone used in cement creation with an electrochemical process, the CO2 produced is released in a pure, concentrated stream that can be more easily captured and sequestered underground or harnessed for products, such as fizzy drinks.

Agriculture

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the agriculture industry. As well as feeding the world, it employs a third of it.

Within this sector, fertiliser plays an essential role in maintaining the global food supply. However, the fertiliser production industry represents approximately 2% of global CO2 emissions.

CCUS technology can reduce the CO2 contributions made by the manufacturing of fertiliser, while maintaining crop reliability. In 2019, Oil and Gas Climate Initiative’s (OGCI) Climate Investments announced funding for what is expected to be the biggest CCUS project in the US.

Tractor with pesticide fungicide insecticide sprayer on farm land top view Spraying with pesticides and herbicides crops

Based at the Wabash Valley Resources fertiliser plant in Indiana, the project will capture between 1.3 and 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 from the ammonia producer per year. The captured carbon will then be stored 2,000 metres below ground in a saline aquifer.

Similarly, since the turn of the millennium Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Engineering has deployed CCUS technology at fertiliser plants around Asia. CO2 is captured from natural gas pre-combustion, and used to create the urea fertiliser.

However, the agriculture industry can also capture carbon in more nature-based and cheaper ways.

Soil acts as a carbon sink, capturing and locking in the carbon from plants and grasses that die and decay into it. However, intensive ploughing can damage the soil’s ability to retain CO2.

It only takes slight adjustments in farming techniques, like minimising soil disturbance, or crop and grazing rotations, to enable soil and grasslands to sequester greater levels of CO2 and even make farms carbon negative.

Transport

The transport sector is the fastest growing contributor to climate emissions, according to the World Health Organisation. Electric vehicles and hydrogen fuels are expected to serve as the driving force for much of the sector’s decarbonisation, however, at present these technologies are only really making an impact on roads. There are other essential modes of transport where CCUS has a role to play. 

Climeworks, a Swiss company developing units that capture CO2 directly from the air, has begun working with Rotterdam The Hague Airport to develop a direct air capture (DAC) unit on the airport’s grounds.

Climeworks Plant technology [Source: Climeworks Photo by Julia Dunlop]

hydrogen filling station in the Hamburg harbor city

Hydrogen filling station in Hamburg, Germany.

However, beyond just capturing CO2 from planes taking off, Climeworks aims to use the CO2 to produce a synthetic jet fuel – creating a cycle of carbon reusage that ensures none is emitted into the atmosphere. A pilot project aims to create 1,000 litres of the fuel per day in 2021.

Another approach to zero-carbon transport fuel is the utilisation of hydrogen, which is already powering cars, trains, buses and even spacecraft.

Hydrogen can be produced in a number of ways, but it’s predominantly created from natural gas, through a process in which CO2 is a by-product. CCUS can play an important role here in capturing the CO2 and storing it, preventing it entering the atmosphere.

The hydrogen-powered vehicles then only emit water vapour and heat.

From every industry to every business to everyone

As CCUS technology continues to be deployed at scale and made increasingly affordable, it has the potential to go beyond just large industrial sites, to entire economic regions.

Global Thermostat is developing DAC technology which can be fitted to any factory or plant that produces heat in its processes. The system uses the waste heat to power a DAC unit, either from a particular source or from the surrounding atmosphere. Such technologies along with those already in action like bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), can quickly make negative emissions a reality at scale.

However, to capture, transport and permanently store CO2 at the scale needed to reach net zero, collaboration partnerships and shared infrastructure between businesses in industrial regions is essential.

The UK’s Humber region is an example of an industrial cluster where a large number of high-carbon industrial sites sit in close proximity to one another. By installing BECCS and CCUS infrastructure that can be utilised by multiple industries, the UK can have a far greater impact on emissions levels than through individual, small-scale CCUS projects.

Decarbonising the UK and the world will not be achieved by individual sites and industries but by collective action that transcends sectors, regions and supply chains. Implementing CCUS at as large a scale as possible takes a greater stride towards bringing the wider economy and society to net zero.

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

Breaking circuits to keep electricity safe

Electric relay with sparks jumping between the contacts doe to breaking a heavy inductive load.

Electricity networks around the world differ many ways, from the frequency they run at to the fuels they’re powered by, to the infrastructure they run on. But they all share at least one core component: circuits.

A circuit allows an electrical current to flow from one point to another, moving it around the grid to seamlessly power street lights, domestic devices and heavy industry. Without them electricity would have nowhere to flow and no means of reaching the things it needs to power.

But electricity can be volatile, and when something goes wrong it’s often on circuits that problems first manifest. That’s where circuit breakers come in. These devices can jump into action and break a circuit, cutting off electricity flow to the faulty circuit and preventing catastrophe in homes and at grid scale. “All this must be done in milliseconds,” says Drax Electrical Engineer Jamie Beardsall.

But to fully understand exactly how circuit breakers save the day, it’s important to understand how and why circuits works.

Circuits within circuits 

Circuits work thanks to the natural properties of electricity, which always wants to flow from a high voltage to a lower one. In the case of a battery or mains plug this means there are always two sides: a negative side with a voltage of zero and a positive side with a higher voltage.

In a simple circuit electricity flows in a current along a conductive path from the positive side, where there is a voltage, to the negative side, where there is a lower or no voltage. The amount of current flowing depends on both the voltage applied, and the size of the load within the circuit.

We’re able to make use of this flow of electricity by adding electrical devices – for example a lightbulb – to the circuit. When the electricity moves through the circuit it also passes through the device, in turn powering it. 

A row of switched on household electrical circuit breakers on a wall panel

A row of switched on household electrical circuit breakers on a wall panel

The national grid, your regional power distributor, our homes, businesses and more are all composed of multiple circuits that enable the flow of electricity. This means that if one circuit fails (for example if a tree branch falls on a transmission cable), only that circuit is affected, rather than the entire nation’s electricity connection. At a smaller scale, if one light bulb in a house blows it will only affect that circuit, not the entire building.

And while the cause of failures on circuits may vary from fallen tree branches, to serious wiring faults to too many high-voltage appliances plugged into a single circuit, causing currents to shoot up and overload circuits, the solution to preventing them is almost always the same. 

Fuses and circuit breakers

In homes, circuits are often protected from dangerously high currents by fuses, which in Great Britain are normally found in standard three-pin plugs and fuse boxes. In a three pin plug each fuse contains a small wire – or element.

One electrical fuse on electronic circuit background

An electrical fuse

When electricity passes through the circuit (and fuse), it heats up the wire. But if the current running through the circuit gets too high the wire overheats and disintegrates, breaking the circuit and preventing the wires and devices attached to it from being damaged. When a fuse like this breaks in a plug or a fuse box it must be replaced. A circuit breaker, however, can carry out this task again and again.

Instead of a piece of wire, circuit breakers use an electromagnetic switch. When the circuit breaker is on, the current flows through two points of contact. When the current is at a normal level the adjacent electromagnet is not strong enough to separate the contact points. However, if the current increases to a dangerous level the electromagnet is triggered to kick into action and pulls one contact point away, breaking the circuit and opening the circuit breaker.

Another approach to fuses is using a strip made of two different types of metals. As current increases and temperatures rise, one metal expands faster than the other, causing the strip to bend and break the circuit. Once the connection is broken the strip cools, allowing the circuit breaker to be reset.

This approach means the problem on the circuit can be identified and solved, for example by unplugging a high-voltage appliance from the circuit before flipping the switch back on and reconnecting the circuit.

Protecting generators at grid scale 

Power circuit breakers for a high-voltage network

Circuit breakers are important in residential circuits, but at grid level they become even more crucial in preventing wide-scale damage to the transmission system and electricity generators.

If part of a transmission circuit is damaged, for example by high winds blowing over a power line, the current flow within that circuit can be disrupted and can flow to earth rather than to its intended load or destination. This is what is known as a short circuit.

Much like in the home, a short circuit can result in dangerous increases in current with the potential to damage equipment in the circuit or nearby. Equipment used in transmission circuits can cost millions of pounds to replace, so it is important this current flow is stopped as quickly as possible.

“Circuit breakers are the light switches of the transmission system,” says Beardsall.

“They must operate within milliseconds of an abnormal condition being detected. However, In terms of similarities with the home, this is where it ends.”

Current levels in the home are small – usually below 13 amps (A or ampere) for an individual circuit, with the total current coming into a home rarely exceeding 80A.

In a transmission system, current levels are much higher. Beardsall explains: “A single transmission circuit can have current flows in excess of 2,000A and voltages up to 400,000 Volts. Because the current flowing through the transmission system is much greater than that around a home, breaking the circuit and stopping the current flow becomes much harder.”

A small air gap is enough to break a circuit at a domestic level, but at grid-scale voltage is so high it can arc over air gaps, creating a visible plasma bridge. To suppress this the contact points of the circuit breakers used in transmission systems are often contained in housings filled with insulating gases or within a vacuum, which are not conductive and help to break the circuit.

A 400kV circuit breaker on the Drax Power Station site

A 400kV circuit breaker on the Drax Power Station site

In addition, there will often be several contact points within a single circuit breaker to help break the high current and voltage levels. Older circuit breakers used oil or high-pressure air for breaking current, although these are now largely obsolete.

In a transmission system, circuit breakers will usually be triggered by relays – devices which measure the current flowing through the circuit and trigger a command to open the circuit breaker if the current exceeds a pre-determined value. “The whole process,” says Beardsall, “from the abnormal current being detected to the circuit breaker being opened can occur in under 100 milliseconds.”

Circuit breakers are not only used for emergencies though, they can also be activated to shut off parts of the grid or equipment for maintenance, or to direct power flows to different areas.

A single circuit breaker used within the home would typically be small enough to fit in your hand.  A single circuit breaker used within the transmission system may well be bigger than your home.

Circuit breakers are a key piece of equipment in use at Drax Power Station, just as they are within your home. Largely un-noticed, the largest power station in the UK has hundreds of circuit breakers installed all around the site.

A 3300 Volt circuit breaker at Drax Power Station

A 3300 Volt circuit breaker at Drax Power Station

“They provide protection for everything from individual circuits powering pumps, fans and fuel conveyors, right through to protecting the main 660 megawatt (MW) generators, allowing either individual items of plant to be disconnected or enabling full generating units to be disconnected from the National Grid,” explains Beardsall.

The circuit breakers used at Drax in North Yorkshire vary significantly. Operating at voltages from 415 Volts right up to 400,000 Volts, they vary in size from something like a washing machine to something taller than a double decker bus.

Although the size, capacity and scale of the circuit breakers varies dramatically, all perform the same function – allowing different parts of electrical circuits to be switched on and off and ensuring electrical system faults are isolated as quickly as possible to keep damage and danger to people to a minimum.

While the voltages and amount of current is much larger at a power station than in any home, the approach to quickly breaking a circuit remains the same. While circuits are integral parts of any power system, they would mean nothing without a failsafe way of breaking them.