Tag: biomass energy

How biomass can enable a hydrogen economy

Key points:

  • Hydrogen as a fuel offers a carbon-free alternative for hard-to-abate sectors such as heavy road transport, domestic heating, and industries like steel and cement.
  • There are several methods of producing hydrogen, the most common being steam methane reforming, which can be a carbon-intensive process.
  • Biomass gasification with CCS is a form of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) that can produce hydrogen and negative emissions – removing CO2 permanently from the atmosphere.
  • The development of both BECCS and hydrogen technologies will determine how intrinsically connected the two are in a net zero future.

Reaching net zero means more than just transitioning to renewable and low carbon electricity generation. The whole UK economy must transform where its energy comes from to low-emissions sources. This includes ‘hard-to-abate’ industries like steel, cement, and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), as well as areas such as domestic heating

One solution is hydrogen. The ultra-light element can be used as a fuel that when combusted in air produces only heat, water vapour, and nitrous oxide. As hydrogen is a carbon-free fuel, a so-called ‘hydrogen economy’ has the potential to decarbonise hard-to-abate sectors.

While hydrogen is a zero-carbon fuel its production methods can be carbon-intensive. For a hydrogen economy to operate within a net zero UK carbon-neutral means of producing it are needed at scale. And biomass, energy from organic material – with or without carbon capture and storage (in the case of BECCS)– could have a key role to play.

In January 2022, the UK government launched a £5 million Hydrogen BECCS Innovation Programme. It aims to develop technologies that can both produce hydrogen for hard-to-decarbonise sectors and removeCO2 from the atmosphere. The initiative highlights the connected role that biomass and hydrogen can have in supporting a net zero UK.

Producing hydrogen at scale

Hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant element in the universe. However, it rarely exists on its own. It’s more commonly found alongside oxygen in the familiar form of H2O. Because of its tendency to form tight bonds with other elements, pure streams of hydrogen must be manufactured rather than extracted from a well, like oil or natural gas.

As much as 70 million tonnes of hydrogen is produced each year around the world, mainly to make ammonia fertiliser and chemicals such as methanol, or to remove impurities during oil refining. Of that hydrogen, 96% is made from fossil fuels, primarily natural gas, through a process called steam methane reforming, of which hydrogen and CO2 are products. Without the use of carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS) technologies the CO2 is released into the atmosphere, where it acts as a greenhouse gas and contributes to climate change.

Another method of producing hydrogen is electrolysis. This process uses an electric current to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Like charging an electric vehicle, this method is only low carbon if the electricity sources powering it are as well.

For electrolysis to support hydrogen production at scale depends on a net zero electricity grid built around renewable electricity sources such as wind, solar, hydro, and biomass.

However, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) offers another means of producing carbon-free renewable hydrogen, while also removing emissions from the atmosphere and storing it – permanently.

Producing hydrogen and negative emissions with biomass 

Biomass gasification is the process of subjecting biomass (or any organic matter) to high temperatures but with a limited amount of oxygen added that prevents complete combustion from occurring.

The process breaks the biomass down into a gaseous mixture known as syngas, which can be used as an alternative to methane-based natural gas in heating and electricity generation or used to make fuels. Through a water-gas shift reaction, the syngas can be converted into pure streams of CO2 and hydrogen.

Ordinarily, the hydrogen could be utilised while the CO2 is released. In a BECCS process, however, the COis captured and stored safely and permanently. The result is negative emissions.

Here’s how it works: BECCS starts with biomass from sustainably managed forests. Wood that is not suitable for uses like furniture or construction – or wood chips and residues from these industries – is often considered waste. In some cases, it’s simply burnt to dispose of it. However, this low-grade wood can be used for energy generation as biomass.

When biomass is used in a process like gasification, the CO2 that was absorbed by trees as they grew and subsequently stored in the wood is released. However, in a BECCS process, the CO2 is captured and transported to locations where it can be stored permanently.

The overall process removes CO2 from the atmosphere while producing hydrogen. Negative emissions technologies like BECCS are considered essential for the UK and the world to reach net zero and tackle climate change.

Building a collaborative net zero economy  

How big a role hydrogen will play in the future is still uncertain. The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) 2018 report ‘Hydrogen in a low carbon economy’ outlines four scenarios. These range from hydrogen production in 2050 being able to provide less than 100 terawatt hours (TWh) of energy a year to more than 700 TWh.

Similarly, how important biomass is to the production of hydrogen varies across different scenarios. The CCC’s report puts the amount of hydrogen produced in 2050 via BECCS between 50 TWh in some scenarios to almost 300 TWh in others. This range depends on factors such as the technology readiness level of biomass gasification. If it can be proven – technical work Drax is currently undertaking – and at scale, then BECCS can deliver on the high-end forecast of hydrogen production.

The volumes will also depend on the UK’s commitment to BECCS and sustainable biomass. The CCC’s ‘Biomass in a low carbon economy’ report offers a ‘UK BECCS hub’ scenario in which the UK accesses a greater proportion of the global biomass resource than countries with less developed carbon capture and storage systems, as part of a wider international effort to sequester and store CO2. The scenario assumes that the UK builds on its current status and continues to be a global leader in BECCS supply chains, infrastructure, and geological storage capacity. If this can be achieved, biomass and BECCS could be an intrinsic part of a hydrogen economy.

There are still developments being made in hydrogen and BECCS, which will determine how connected each is to the other and to a net zero UK. This includes the feasibility of converting HGVs and other gas systems to hydrogen, as well as the efficiency of carbon capture, transport and storage systems. The cost of producing hydrogen and carrying out BECCS are also yet to be determined.

The right government policies and incentives that encourage investment and protect jobs are needed to progress the dual development of BECCS and hydrogen. Success in both fields can unlock a collaborative net zero economy that delivers a carbon-free fuel source in hydrogen and negative emissions through BECCS.

What is sustainable forest management?

Sustainable forest management is frequently defined in terms of providing a balance of social, environmental, and economic benefits, not just for today but for the future too. It might be seen as the practice of maintaining forests to ensure they remain healthy, absorb more carbon than they release, and can continue to be enjoyed and used by future generations.

To achieve this, foresters apply science, knowledge, and standards that help ensure forests continue to play an important role in the wellbeing of people and the planet.

Managed forests, also called working forests, fulfil a variety of environmental, social, and economic functions. These range from forests managed to attract certain desired wildlife species, to forests grown to provide saw timber and reoccurring revenue for landowners.

How are forests sustainably managed?

How forests are managed depends on landowner goals – managing for recreation and wildlife, focusing on maximising production of wood products, or both. Each forest requires management tailored to its owner’s or manager’s objectives.

There are many ways to manage forests to keep them healthy – there is no ‘one size fits all’ – but keeping track of how they are doing can be tricky. One alternative for monitoring forests is to use satellite imagery.

One common sustainable forestry practice is thinning, which involves periodically removing smaller, unhealthy, or diseased trees to enable stronger ones to thrive. Thinning reduces competition between trees for resources like sunlight and water, and it can also help promote biodiversity by creating more space for other forest flora.

The wood removed from forests through thinning is sometimes not high-quality enough to be used in industries such as construction or furniture. However, the biomass industry can use it to make compressed wood pellets; a feedstock for renewable source electricity.

By providing a market for low-quality wood, pellet production encourages landowners to carry out thinnings. This practice improves the health of the forest, and helps support better growth, greater carbon storage, and creates more valuable woodland.

Fast facts

What are the environmental benefits of sustainably managed forests?

Through their ability to act as carbon sinks, forests are an important part of meeting global climate goals like the Paris Agreement and the UK’s own target of reaching net zero emissions by 2050.

When managed effectively through thinning or active harvesting, and replanting and regeneration, forests can often sequester – or absorb and store – more carbon than forests that are left untouched, increasing productivity and improving planting material.

Harvesting trees before they reach an age when growth slows or plateaus can help prevent fire damage, pests, and disease, so timing of final cutting is important. Though the vast majority of timber from such cutting will go to other markets (construction, furniture etc) and secure higher prices from those markets, being able to sell lower quality wood for biomass provides the landowner with some extra revenue.

Sustainably managed forests also help achieve other environmental goals, such as sustaining biodiversity, protecting sensitive sites and providing clean air and water. Managed forests also have substantial water absorption capacity preventing flooding by slowing the flow of sudden downpours and helping to prevent nearby rivers and streams from overfilling.

Wood from working forests also help tackle climate change in that high-value wood from harvested trees can be used to make timber for the construction or furniture sectors. These wood products lock up carbon for extended periods of time, and the wood can be used at end-of life to displace fossil fuels. Using wood also means materials such as concrete, bricks or steel are not used, and these materials have a large carbon footprint compared to wood.

What are the socioeconomic benefits of sustainably managed forests?

There are also social and economic benefits to managing forests. Sustainably managed working forests make vital contributions both to people and to the planet.

The commercial use of wood in industries like furniture and construction drives revenue for landowners. This encourages landowners to continue to replant forests and manage them in a sustainable way that continues to deliver returns.

Healthy forests can also improve living standards for local communities for jobs and helping to address unemployment in rural regions. Managed forests can also improve access for recreation. On a larger scale, sustainable forestry can offer a valuable export for regions and nations and foster trade between countries.

Go deeper 

Forests, net zero and the science behind biomass

Tackling climate change and spurring a global transition to net zero emissions will require collaboration between science and industry. New technologies and decarbonisation methods must be rooted in scientific research and testing.

Drax has almost a decade of experience in using biomass as a renewable source of power. Over that time, our understanding around the effectiveness of bioenergy, its role in improving forest health and ability to deliver negative emissions, has accelerated.

Research from governments and global organisations, such as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) increasingly highlight sustainably sourced biomass and bioenergy’s role in achieving net zero on a wide scale.

The European Commission has also highlighted biomass’ potential to provide a solution that delivers both renewable energy and healthy, sustainably managed forests.  Frans Timmermans, the executive vice-president of the European Commission in charge of the European Green Deal has emphasised it’s importance in bringing economies to net zero, saying: “without biomass, we’re not going to make it. We need biomass in the mix, but the right biomass in the mix.”

The role of biomass in a sustainable future

Moving away from fossil fuels means building an electricity system that is primarily based on renewables. Supporting wind and solar, by providing electricity at times of low sunlight or wind levels, will require flexible sources of generation, such as biomass, as well as other technologies like increased energy storage.

In the UK, the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) Sixth Carbon Budget report lays out its Balanced Net Zero Pathway. In this lead scenario, the CCC says that bioenergy can reduce fossil emissions across the whole economy by 2 million tonnes of CO2 or equivalent emissions (MtCO2e) per year by 2035, increasing to 2.5 MtCO2e in 2045.

Foresters in working forest, Mississippi

Foresters in working forest, Mississippi

Biomass is also expected to play a crucial role in supplying biofuels and hydrogen production for sectors of the global economy that will continue to use fuel rather than electricity, such as aviation, shipping and industrial processes. The CCC’s Balanced Net Zero Pathway suggest that enough low-carbon hydrogen and bioenergy will be needed to deliver 425 TWh of non-electric power in 2050 – compared to the 1,000 TWh of power fossil fuels currently provide to industries today.

However, bioenergy can only be considered to be good for the climate if the biomass used comes from sustainably managed sources. Good forest management practises ensure that forests remain sustainable sources of woody biomass and effective carbon sinks.

A report co-authored by IPCC experts examines the scientific literature around the climate effects (principally CO2 abatement) of sourcing biomass for bioenergy from forests managed according to sustainable forest management principles and practices.

The report highlights the dual impact managed forests contribute to climate change mitigation by providing material for forest products, including biomass that replace greenhouse gas (GHG)-intensive fossil fuels, and by storing carbon in forests and in long-lived forest products.

The role of biomass and bioenergy in decarbonising economies goes beyond just replacing fossil fuels. The addition of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to bioenergy to create bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) enables renewable power generation while removing carbon from the atmosphere and carbon cycle permanently.

The negative emissions made possible by BECCS are now seen as a fundamental part of many scenarios to limit global warming to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels.

BECCS and the path to net zero

The IPCC’s special report on limiting global warming to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels, emphasises that even across a wide range of scenarios for energy systems, all share a substantial reliance on bioenergy – coupled with effective land-use that prevents it contributing to deforestation.

The second chapter of the report deals with pathways that can bring emissions down to zero by the mid-century. Bioenergy use is substantial in 1.5°C pathways with or without CCS due to its multiple roles in decarbonising both electricity generation and other industries that depend on fossil fuels.

However, it’s the negative emissions made possible by BECCS that make biomass  instrumental in multiple net zero scenarios. The IPCC report highlights BECCS alongside the associated afforestation and reforestation (AR), that comes with sustainable forest management, are key components in pathways that limit climate change to 1.5oC.

Graphic showing how BECCS removes carbon from the atmosphere. Click to view/download

There are two key factors that make BECCS and other forms of emissions removals so essential: The first is their ability to neutralise residual emissions from sources that are not reducing their emissions fast enough and those that are difficult or even impossible to fully decarbonise. Aviation and agriculture are two sectors vital to the global economy with hard-to-abate emissions. Negative emissions technologies can remove an equivalent amount of CO2 that these industries produce helping balance emissions and progressing economies towards net zero.

The second reason BECCS and other negative emissions technologies will be so important in the future is in the removal of historic CO2 emissions. What makes CO2 such an important GHG to reduce and remove is that it lasts much longer in the atmosphere than any other. To help reach the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting temperature rises to below 1.5oC removing historic emissions from the atmosphere will be essential.

In the UK, the  CCC’s 2018 report ‘Biomass in a low-carbon economy’ also points to BECCS as both a crucial source of energy and emissions abatement.

It suggests that power generation from BECCS will increase from 3 TWh per year in 2035 to 45 TWh per year in 2050. It marks a sharp increase from the 19.5 TWh that biomass (without CCS) accounted for across 2020, according to Electric Insights data. It also suggests that BECCS could sequester 1.1 tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of biomass used, providing clear negative emissions.

However, the report makes clear that unlocking the potential of bioenergy and BECCS is only possible when biomass stocks are managed in a sustainable way that, as a minimum requirement, maintains the carbon stocks in plants and soils over time.

With increased attention paid to forest management and land use, there is a growing body of evidence that points to bioenergy as a win-win solution that can decarbonise power and economies, while supporting healthy forests that effectively sequester CO2.

How bioenergy ensures sustainable forests

Biomass used in electricity generation and other industries must come from sustainable sources to offer a renewable, climate beneficial [or low carbon] source of power.

UK legislation on biomass sourcing states that operators must maintain an adequate inventory of the trees in the area (including data on the growth of the trees and on the extraction of wood) to ensure that wood is extracted from the area at a rate that does not exceed its long-term capacity to produce wood. This is designed to ensure that areas where biomass is sourced from retain their productivity and ability to continue sequestering carbon.

Ensuring that forestland remains productive and protected from land-use changes, such as urban creep, where vegetated land is converted into urban, concreted spaces, depends on a healthy market for wood products. Industries such as construction and furniture offer higher prices for higher-quality wood. While low-quality, waste wood, as well as residues from forests and wood-industry by-products, can be bought and used to produce biomass pellets.

A report by Forest 2 Market examined the relationship between demand for wood and forests’ productivity and ability to sequester carbon in the US South, where Drax sources about two-thirds of its biomass.

The report found that increased demand for wood did not displace forests in the US South. Instead, it encouraged landowners to invest in productivity improvements that increased the amount of wood fibre and therefore carbon contained in the region’s forests.

A synthesis report, which examines a broad range of research papers,  published in Forest Ecology and Management in March of 2021, concluded from existing studies that claims of large-scale damage to biodiversity from woody biofuel in the South East US are not supported. The use of these forest residues as an energy source was also found to lead to net GHG greenhouse emissions savings compared to fossil fuels, according to Forest Research.

Importantly the research shows that climate risks are not exacerbated because of biomass sourcing; in fact, the opposite is true with annual wood growth in the US South increasing by 112% between 1953 and 2015.

Delivering a “win-win solution”

The European Commission’s JRC Science for Policy literature review and knowledge synthesis report ‘The use of woody biomass for energy production in the EU’ suggests  a win-win forest bioenergy pathway is possible, that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short term, while at the same time not damaging, or even improving, the condition of forest ecosystems.

However, it also makes clear “lose-lose” situations is also a possible, in which forest ecosystems are damaged without providing carbon emission reductions in policy-relevant timeframes.

Win-win management practices must benefit climate change mitigation and have either a neutral or positive effect on biodiversity. A win-win future would see the afforestation of former arable land with diverse and naturally regenerated forests.

The report also warns of trade-offs between local biodiversity and mitigating carbon emissions, or vice versa. These must be carefully navigated to avoid creating a lose-lose scenario where biodiversity is damaged and natural forests are converted into plantations, while BECCS fails to deliver the necessary negative emissions.

In a future that will depend on science working in collaboration with industries to build a net zero future continued research is key to ensuring biomass can deliver the win-win solution of renewable electricity with negative emissions while supporting healthy forests.

Enviva Cottondale pellet plant catchment area analysis

The Enviva Cottondale pellet mill has a production capacity of 760,000 metric tonnes of wood pellets annually. Raw material used by the mill includes a combination of roundwood, chips, and secondary residuals (i.e., sawdust and shavings), with pine accounting for 80‐90% of total feedstock. In October 2018, Hurricane Michael passed through the centre of the Cottondale catchment area, causing significant damage to the forest resource with more than 500,000 hectares (ha) of forestland destroyed and an estimated loss of 42 million m3of timber (equivalent to around 4 times the UK annual production of roundwood).

This event has had an impact on the data trends for forest inventory, growth and harvesting removals – as harvesting levels were increased to salvage as much timber as possible before it became unusable due to decay. This can be clearly seen in many of the charts below. However, these forest areas have been restored and now continue to grow, allowing the catchment area to return to its pre-hurricane trends in the medium term.

Forest Area 

The catchment area around Enviva’s Cottondale pellet mill includes 4.3 million ha of land, based on the historical feedstock sourcing patterns of the mill. Timberland represents 68.7% (2.95 million ha) of the total land area in the Cottondale catchment area, this has increased slightly since 2000 from 67.8% and can be considered to have remained stable over this time period.  There are also around 300,000 ha of woodland (associated with agricultural land) and around 800,000 ha of cropland and pastureland.  Forestry is the dominant land use in this catchment area (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Land area by usage

Planted pine represents 33% of the timberland area, natural pine 20%, with 10% mixed stands and the remainder being hardwood forest of which 94% is naturally regenerated (Figure 2).  The breakdown of forest type and species composition has remained relatively stable and largely unchanged over the last 20 years, in contrast to other parts of the US South where some natural pine stands have been converted to planted pine. The pine and mixed forest areas are actively managed and produce the majority of the timber harvest in the catchment area. Despite the large area of hardwood forest, management and timber production is limited. Much of this area is classified as bottomland hardwood located alongside rivers, streams, and creeks and in streamside management zones (SMZs), which restricts active management. In addition, the proportion of this catchment area located in Florida contains a large area of swampland, which is largely composed of hardwoods and cannot be actively managed for timber production and is recognised as having important ecological value.

Figure 2: Breakdown of forest type

Volume and Growth

The overall trend of volume and growth in the Cottondale catchment area is of a maturing forest resource and an increasing accumulation of standing volume, particularly in the larger forest product classes (saw-timber and chip-n-saw). Figure 3 shows that total standing volume increased by 64 million m3 from 2000 to 2018, with the largest increases in the pine saw-timber and chip-n-saw categories. In 2018, the devastating impact of Hurricane Michael caused a substantial reduction in the standing volume across every product category with the total standing volume being reduced by 42 million m3. This event has had a significant impact on the forest resource and is a primary cause of recent data trends.

However, the overall long-term trend in the catchment area is of maturing forest and increasing inventory. This should continue in the long-term once the impact of the hurricane damage has been managed and replacement forest areas begin to mature.

Figure 3: Standing volume by product category

Pine pulpwood inventory increased steadily by around 8 million m3 from 2000 to 2013, reaching a peak of 49 million m3. This then declined slightly to 46 million m3 in 2018 due to the maturing age class of the forest and pulpwood forest growing into the larger size class of chip-n-saw and saw-timber forest (Figure 4), in addition to an increase in pulpwood demand as biomass markets became operational and ramped up production. Following the hurricane in 2018, the pine pulpwood inventory dropped by more than 10 million m3. 

Replanting and reforestation of damaged areas will ensure that future pine pulpwood production will increase again once these forests start to mature.

In the period from 2000 to 2018 pine sawtimber standing volume increased by 41.5 million m3 (78%) and chip-n-saw by 19.6 million m3 (73%), indicating a maturing age class and a growing forest resource. The 2018 hurricane caused a reduction in standing volume in both of these product categories of 11.6 and 8 million m3respectively (12% and 17% of the 2018 volume). However, the increasing trend is likely to continue once the forest area recovers.

Figure 4: Standing volume by product category

The growth drain ratio (GDR) is the comparison of average annual growth to removals (typically harvesting), where the growth exceeds removals the GDR will be in excess of 1 and this is considered sustainable, where removals exceed growth then the GDR will be less than 1 and this is not sustainable if maintained in the long-term – although in the short-term this can be a factor of large areas of mature forest with low growth rates and high rates of harvesting, short periods of high demand for a particular product or salvage harvesting after a natural disturbance. The GDR should be considered over a longer time period to ensure it reflects the long-term trend. In the period from 2003 to 2020 the combined GDR for pine products averaged 1.52 with a high of 1.84 and a low of 1.08 (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Growth to drain ratio by product category

The maturing forest resources can be clearly seen from the growth to removals data for each product category. Average tree sizes getting larger and more pulpwood class stands moving into the larger saw-timber and chip-n-saw categories. This trend can be seen by comparing the data values from 2003 and 2018 where saw-timber average annual growth increased by 90% (1.6 million m3), and removals by 41% (0.98 million m3).  Chip-n-saw growth increased by 73% (1.3 million m3) whilst removals increased by 160% (1.9 million m3). Pulpwood growth decreased by 7.5% (0.4 million m3) whilst removals increased by 63% (1.6 million m3).  Over this time period the total annual surplus of pine growth compared to removals averaged 3.7 million m3 per year (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Pine growth and removals by product category and year

Hardwood saw-timber and pulpwood removals declined by 20% and 40% respectively between 2000 and 2018, whilst growth increased by 23% for hardwood saw-timber and declined by 16% for hardwood pulpwood. The average annual hardwood surplus over this time period was 1.5 million m3 per year (Figure 7).

Figure 7: Hardwood growth and removals by product category and year

Despite a short-term imbalance in some product categories, the overall surplus of pine growth compared to removals has remained strong, with an average of 3.3 million m3 between 2000 and 2020, which includes the increased salvage harvesting in 2018 (Figure 8).

Figure 8: Cumulative annual surplus of growth compared to removals

Wood Prices

Stumpage price is the value paid to the forest owner for each category of product at the time of harvesting. The variation in prices in the Cottondale catchment area has been significant and shows some interesting trends. The higher value pine products (saw-timber and chip-n-saw) began with high stumpage values in 2000, as markets were strong for construction and furniture grade timber and supply limited at that stage due to the young age class and predominance of pulpwood stands at that time.  In 2008, following the global economic crisis and the crash in housing and construction markets, saw-timber prices declined substantially reaching a low of $23 per ton, a 47% decline from the 2000 price. This stumpage price has never recovered, despite an improvement in the economy and an increase in housing starts and demand for structural timber. The reason for the continued deflated saw-timber stumpage price is a substantial surplus of supply in this catchment area.  As the forest area has matured and more saw-timber grade stands are available, markets have been able to satisfy demand without an increase in price.

Pine pulpwood prices at Cottondale were lower than the US South-wide average in 2000 and remained relatively low until around 2013. A reduction in saw-timber production, and consequent reduction in mill residuals, due to the recession of 2008, led to a shortage of pulp mill feedstock and increased harvesting of pulpwood stands. This caused an increase in pine pulpwood stumpage values alongside an overall increase in demand as biomass and pellet markets began production around this time. The data shows a short-term spike in pine pulpwood stumpage prices in 2013-14, but this returned to a more normal trend as more saw-timber residues became available and pulpwood stumpage values have been around $10-11 per ton since 2015 (Figure 9).

Figure 9: Variation in stumpage value over time

Biomass demand 

Biomass demand in the Cottondale catchment area began in 2008 and has averaged around 800 thousand m3per year since that time with a high of just over 1 million m3 in 2013 to 2015 and a low of 200 thousand m3 in 2008. Other pulpwood markets have had an average annual demand of 3.97 million m3 between 2000 and 2020 with a high of 4.76 million m3 in 2018 and a low of 3.2 million m3 in 2009.  In 2020 the biomass market represented 16% of the total pulpwood demand in the Cottondale catchment area (Figure 10).

Figure 10: Total pulpwood demand

Forest Management

The average size of clear-cut harvesting sites from 2000 to 2020 has been 47 ha, ranging from 38 ha up to 56 ha. The average size of thinning sites has been 65 ha, ranging from 55 ha up to 76 ha. When isolating the period from 2000 to 2010 and 2011 to 2020, the averages and range remain very similar, suggesting that there has been no significant change in harvesting coupe size over this period.

Figure 11: Average size of harvesting sites

The impact of biomass and wood pellet demand on the key metrics in this catchment area are considered below. This is a summary of Hood Consulting’s view on the trends and impacts in the Cottondale catchment area.

Is there any evidence that bioenergy demand has caused the following:

Deforestation?

No. US Forest Service (USFS) data shows a 55,166-hectare (+1.9%) increase in the total area of timberland in the Enviva Cottondale catchment area since the Enviva Cottondale pellet mill commenced production in 2008. Furthermore, a strong positive relationship was identified between biomass demand and timberland area, suggesting that the increase in timberland area since 2008 can be linked, to a degree, to increased demand attributed to bioenergy.

A change in management practices (rotation lengths, thinnings, conversion from hardwood to pine)?

Inconclusive. Changes in management practices have occurred in the catchment area over the last two decades. However, the evidence is inconclusive as to whether increased demand attributed to bioenergy has caused or is responsible for these changes.

Clearcuts and thinnings are the two major types of harvests that occur in this region, both of which are long-standing, widely used methods of harvesting timber. TimberMart-South (TMS) data shows that thinnings accounted for 63% of total reported harvest area in the Cottondale market from 2005-2011 but only 39% of total harvest area reported from 2012-2020. Specifically, the decreased prevalence of thinning since 2012 can be linked to the strengthening of pine pulpwood markets and concurrent weakening of pine sawtimber markets beginning in the mid-2000s.

Prior to the bursting of the US housing bubble in 2006, timber management in this market had been driven to a large degree by pine sawtimber production. However, challenging market conditions saw pine sawtimber stumpages prices decline more than 40% from 2006-2011. At the same time, pine pulpwood markets started to strengthen, with pine pulpwood stumpage prices increasing more than 50% from 2006-2010. So, with sawtimber markets weakening and pulpwood markets strengthening, the data suggests that many landowners decided to alter their management approach (i.e. to take advantage of strong pulpwood markets) and focus on short pulpwood rotations that typically do not utilize thinnings.

Bioenergy has had an impact on this market by adding an average of roughly 680,000 metric tons of additional pine pulpwood demand to this catchment area annually since 2008. However, bioenergy has accounted for only 17% of total softwood pulpwood demand in this market since Enviva Cottondale’s startup. Ultimately, the shift in management approach that occurred in this market can be more closely linked to other factors, such as increased softwood pulpwood demand from non-bioenergy sources (i.e. pulp/paper) as well as the weakening of pine sawtimber markets.

Diversion from other markets?

No. Demand for softwood (pine) sawlogs increased an estimated 23% in the Cottondale catchment area from 2008-2020. Also, there is no evidence that increased demand from bioenergy has caused a diversion from other softwood pulpwood markets (i.e. pulp/paper), as softwood pulpwood demand not attributed to bioenergy has increased 25% since the Cottondale mill’s startup in 2008.

An unexpected or abnormal increase in wood prices?

Inconclusive. The startup of Enviva Cottondale added more than 900,000 metric tons of softwood pulpwood demand to the catchment area from 2008-2013, and this increase in demand coincided with a 28% increase in the delivered price of pine pulpwood (PPW) – the primary roundwood product consumed by the Enviva Cottondale mill. However, since 2013, delivered PPW prices have held flat, despite biomass-related softwood pulpwood demand falling to an average of roughly 635,000 tons per year since 2016, down more than 40% compared to 2013 peak levels. (Note the decrease in roundwood consumption was due to a higher utilization of secondary residuals). It’s also important to point out that the roughly 410,000-metric ton decrease in softwood biomass demand from 2013 to 2020 was offset by a roughly 455,000-metric ton increase in softwood pulpwood demand from other sources.

Statistical analysis did identify a positive relationship between softwood biomass demand and delivered PPW price. However, that relationship was found to be relatively weak. The relationship between delivered PPW price and softwood pulpwood demand from other sources was found to be much stronger, which was not unexpected to find given that softwood pulpwood demand not attributed to bioenergy has accounted for 83% of total softwood pulpwood demand in the catchment area since 2008.

Furthermore, there is some evidence linking the increase in pine sawmill chip prices to increased consumption of secondary pine residuals by Enviva Cottondale. Specifically, consumption of secondary pine residuals by Enviva Cottondale more than doubled from roughly 213,000 metric tons in 2012 to nearly 490,000 metric tons in 2016, and this increased consumption of pine residuals coincided with a nearly 20% increase in the price of pine sawmill chips. However, increased consumption of residuals by the bioenergy sector was only one of several contributing factors that can be linked to the increase in pine sawmill chip prices. Increased consumption of pine residuals by the pulp/paper industry also contributed to higher pine sawmill chip prices. In addition, there is a strong linkage between pine sawmill chip prices and softwood lumber production. Specifically, the increase in softwood lumber production that begun in the early-to-mid-2010s consequently resulted in the increased production of secondary residuals, and the increased availability of this lower-cost material led to greater competition and ultimately higher pine residual prices.

A reduction in growing stock timber?

No. From 2008 (the year Enviva Cottondale commenced production) up until Hurricane Michael struck in late-2018, total growing stock inventory increased an average of 1.8% per year (+19% total) in the Cottondale catchment area. Specifically, inventories of pine sawtimber and pine chip-n-saw increased 58% and 28%, respectively, while pine pulpwood (PPW) inventory decreased 4% over this same period.

However, note that the decrease in pine pulpwood inventory from 2008-2018 was not due to increased demand from bioenergy or increased harvesting above the sustainable yield capacity of the forest area, as annual growth of pine pulpwood exceeded annual removals every year throughout this period. Rather, this slight decrease in PPW inventory levels is more a reflection of the aging of the catchment area forest and the movement of stands classified as pulpwood to stands classified as chip-n-saw.

A reduction in the sequestration rate of carbon?

No. US Forest Service (USFS) data shows the average annual growth rate of total growing stock timber in the Cottondale catchment area decreased from 5.9% in 2008 to 5.2% in 2020, suggesting that the sequestration rate of carbon also declined slightly over this period. However, there is little evidence to suggest that increased demand attributed to bioenergy is responsible for this change.

The reduction in overall growth rate (and therefore reduction in the sequestration rate of carbon) is more a reflection of the aging of the catchment area forest. Specifically, growth rates decline as timber ages, and this is exactly what USFS data shows in the Cottondale catchment area, with the average age of growing stock timber increasing from less than 44 years of age in 2008 to nearly 46 years of age in 2020.

An increase in harvesting above the sustainable yield capacity of the forest area?

No. Growth-to-removals (G:R) ratios, which compare annual timber growth to annual timber removals, provides a measure of market demand relative to supply as well as a gauge of market sustainability. In 2020, the latest available, the G:R ratio for pine pulpwood (PPW), the predominant timber product utilized by the bioenergy sector, equaled 1.26 (recall that a value greater than 1.0 indicates sustainable harvest levels).

Note, however, that the PPW G:R ratio averaged 1.57 in the catchment area from 2013-2017 before falling to 1.20 in 2018 and averaging 1.27 since. This notable drop in 2018 was due to a nearly 35% increase in PPW removals (due to Hurricane Michael). It’s also important to note that while annual removals have moved back in line with pre-Michael levels since 2019, this lower PPW G:R ratio is likely reflective of the new norm (at least over the midterm). Hurricane Michael destroyed an estimated 22% of total pine pulpwood inventory in the Cottondale catchment area, and this loss in inventory will be reflected in reduced growth until the destroyed forests regenerate. However, in spite of this loss, adequate PPW inventory levels still remain and sustainable market conditions are expected to persist moving forward.

Timber growing stock inventory

Neutral. According to USFS data, inventories of pine pulpwood (PPW) decreased 25% in the catchment area from 2008-2020. However, this substantial decrease was due to Hurricane Michael, which destroyed nearly 520,000 hectares of catchment area timberland when it hit the Florida panhandle in late-2018. Prior to this event occurring, PPW inventory levels had held relatively steady, decreasing slightly but averaging 47.2 million m3 in the catchment area from 2008-2018. However, the destruction caused by Hurricane Michael resulted in the immediate loss of more than 10.3 million m3 of PPW inventory, or a 22% decrease compared to pre-hurricane levels.

Moreover, the slight decrease in PPW inventory levels that did occur from 2008-2018 was not due to increased demand from bioenergy. Typically, a reduction in inventory is linked to harvest levels above the sustainable yield capacity of the forest area, but in the Cottondale catchment area, annual growth of PPW exceeded annual removals every year throughout this period. Ultimately, the decrease in PPW inventory from 2008-2018 can be more closely linked to decreased pine sawtimber production beginning in the early to mid-2000s. Specifically, annual removals of pine sawtimber decreased 28% from 2003-2014, and the reduction in harvest levels over this period translated to a reduction in newly-re-established pine stands and ultimately the slight reduction in PPW inventory levels that occurred in the mid-to-late 2010s.

Timber growth rates

Neutral. Overall, timber growth rates declined slightly in the catchment area from 2008 (the year Enviva Cottondale commenced operations) through 2020. However, this decrease in timber growth rates was not due to increased demand attributed to bioenergy but rather to the aging of the catchment area forest. Specifically, USFS data shows the average age timber inventory in the Cottondale catchment area increased from an estimated 43.6 years of age in 2008 to 45.7 years of age in 2020.

Forest area

Positive. In the Enviva Cottondale catchment area, total forest area (i.e. timberland) increased more than 55,100 hectares (+1.9%) from 2008 through 2020, and this increase can be linked to several factors, including increases in softwood pulpwood demand (from both bioenergy and other sources) as well as conversion from farmland.

Specifically, the more than 55,100-hectare increase in catchment area timberland from 2008-2020 coincided with a 1.1-million metric ton increase in annual softwood pulpwood demand (roughly half of which was attributed to bioenergy). While statistical analysis identified moderately strong positive relationships between timberland area and both softwood biomass demand and non-bioenergy-related softwood pulpwood demand, a strong positive correlation was found between timberland and total softwood pulpwood demand – suggesting that the increases in timberland since 2008 can be attributed, in part, to the increase in total softwood pulpwood demand (from both bioenergy and other sources).

The more than 55,100-hectare increase timberland from 2008-2020 also coincided with a roughly 75,000-hectare decrease in farmland (i.e. cropland, woodland, and pastureland) over this period. Specifically, the catchment area experienced a roughly 31,800-hectare loss in cropland, 8,900-hectare loss in pastureland, and 34,300-hectare loss in woodland from 2008-2020. Furthermore, statistical analysis confirmed this inverse relationship, identifying a strong negative correlation between timberland and farmland in the Cottondale catchment area.

Wood prices

Negative / Positive. Total softwood pulpwood demand attributed to bioenergy in the Cottondale catchment area increased from zero tons in 2007 (the year prior to Enviva Cottondale’s startup) to over 1.0 million metric tons in 2013. Over this same period, the price of delivered pine pulpwood (PPW) – the predominant roundwood product utilized by Enviva Cottondale for wood pellet production – increased 42% (from $21.06 per ton in 2007 to $29.82 per ton in 2013).

However, the apparent link between increased softwood biomass demand and increased delivered PPW price is only loosely supported by statistical analysis, which identified a relatively weak positive relationship between these two variables. Furthermore, delivered PPW price has remained nearly unchanged in the catchment area since 2013, despite softwood biomass demand declining and averaging roughly 577,000 metric tons per year since 2016. (Note that the roughly 410,000-metric ton decrease in softwood biomass demand from 2013-2020 was offset by a roughly 455,000-metric ton increase in softwood pulpwood demand from other sources). Ultimately, the increase in delivered PPW prices in the catchment area can be linked to increased demand for softwood pulpwood from all sources, and roughly half of the 1.2-million metric ton increase in softwood pulpwood demand since 2007 can be attributed to bioenergy.

However, it’s also important to note that the increase in bioenergy-related wood demand has been a positive for forest landowners in the Enviva Cottondale catchment area. Not only has bioenergy provided an additional outlet for pulpwood in this market, but the increase in delivered PPW price resulting from increased softwood pulpwood demand from bioenergy has transferred through to landowners in the form of higher PPW stumpage prices. Specifically, over the six years prior to Enviva Cottondale’s startup, PPW stumpage price – the price paid to landowners – averaged roughly $7.40 per ton in the Cottondale catchment area. However, since 2010, PPW stumpage prices have averaged more than $11.15 per ton, representing a more than 50% increase compared to pre-mill startup levels.

Markets for solid wood products

Positive. In the Enviva Cottondale catchment area, demand for softwood sawlogs used to produce lumber and other solid wood products increased an estimated 23% from 2008-2020. This increase in softwood lumber production has consequentially resulted in an increase in sawmill residuals (i.e. chips, sawdust, and shavings) – by-products of the sawmilling process and materials utilized by Enviva Cottondale to produce wood pellets.

Specifically, softwood sawlog demand has increased more than 16% in the catchment area since 2014, and this increase in demand has coincided with a nearly 60% increase in pine residual purchases by Enviva Cottondale. (Note that pine residuals constituted 25% of total raw material purchases by Enviva Cottondale in 2014 but 41% of total raw material purchases in 2020). So, not only has Enviva Cottondale benefited from the greater availability of this sawmill by-product, but lumber producers have also benefited, as Enviva Cottondale has provided an additional outlet for these producers and their by-products.

Read the full report: Enviva Cottondale pellet plant catchment area analysis

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 can be found here

Half year results for the six months ended 30 June 2021

Engineers walking in front of sustainable biomass wood pellet storage dome at Drax Power Station, June 2021

RNS Number: 8333G
Drax Group plc
(“Drax” or the “Group”; Symbol:DRX)

Six months ended 30 JuneH1 2021H1 2020
Key financial performance measures
Adjusted EBITDA (£ million)(1)(2)186179
Continuing operations165160
Discontinued operations – gas generation2119
Net debt (£ million)(3)1,029792
Adjusted basic EPS (pence)(1)14.610.8
Interim dividend (pence per share)7.56.8
Total financial performance measures from continuing operations
Operating profit / (loss) (£ million)84(57)
Profit / (loss) before tax (£ million)52(85)

Will Gardiner, CEO of Drax Group, said:

“We have had a great first half of the year, transforming Drax into the world’s leading sustainable biomass generation and supply company as well as the UK’s largest generator of renewable power.

“The business has performed well, and we have exciting growth opportunities to support the global transition to a low-carbon economy.

Drax Group CEO Will Gardiner in the control room at Drax Power Station

Drax Group CEO Will Gardiner in the control room at Drax Power Station

“Drax has reduced its generation emissions by over 90%, and we are very proud to be one of the lowest carbon intensity power generators in Europe – a huge transformation for a business which less than a decade ago operated the largest coal power station in Western Europe.

“In the past six months we have significantly advanced our plans for Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) in the UK and globally. By 2030 Drax could be delivering millions of tonnes of negative emissions and leading the world in providing a critical technology needed to tackle the climate crisis.

“We are pleased to be announcing a 10% increase in our dividend, and we remain committed to creating long-term value for all our stakeholders.” 

Financial highlights

Pinnacle named ship

  • Adjusted EBITDA from continuing and discontinued operations up £7 million to £186 million (H1 2020: £179 million)
  • Acquisition of Pinnacle Renewable Energy Inc. (Pinnacle) for cash consideration of C$385 million (£222 million) (enterprise value of C$796 million) and sale of gas generation assets for £186 million
  • Strong liquidity and balance sheet
    • £666 million of cash and committed facilities at 30 June 2021
    • Refinancing of Canadian facilities (July 2021) with lower cost ESG facility following Pinnacle acquisition
  •  Sustainable and growing dividend – expected full year dividend up 10% to 18.8 pence per share (2020: 17.1p/share)
    • Interim dividend of 7.5 pence per share (H1 2020: 6.8p/share) – 40% of full year expectation

Strategic highlights

Kentaro Hosomi, Chief Regional Officer EMEA, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) at Drax Power Station, North Yorkshire

Kentaro Hosomi, Chief Regional Officer EMEA, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) at Drax Power Station, North Yorkshire

  • Developing complementary biomass strategies for supply, negative emissions and renewable power
  • Creation of the world’s leading sustainable biomass generation and supply company
    • Supply – 17 operational plants and developments across three major fibre baskets with production capacity of 4.9Mt pa and $4.3 billion of long-term contracted sales to high-quality customers in Asia and Europe
    • Generation – 2.6GW of biomass generation – UK’s largest source of renewable power by output
  • >90% reduction in generation emissions since 2012
    • Sale of gas generation assets January 2021 and end of commercial coal March 2021
  • Development of BECCS
    • Planning application submitted for Drax Power Station and technology partner (MHI) selected
    • Participation in East Coast Cluster – phase 1 regional clusters and projects to be selected from late 2021
    • Partnerships with Bechtel and Phoenix BioPower evaluating international BECCS and biomass technologies
  • System support – option to develop Cruachan from 400MW to over 1GW – commenced planning approval process

 Outlook

  • Adjusted EBITDA, inclusive of Pinnacle from 13 April 2021, full year expectations unchanged

Operational review

Pellet Production – acquisition of Pinnacle, capacity expansion and biomass cost reduction

close-up of truck raising and lowering

  • Sustainable sourcing
    • Biomass produced using forestry residuals and material otherwise uneconomic to commercial forestry
    • Science-based sustainability policy fully compliant with current UK, EU law on sustainable sourcing aligned with UN guidelines for carbon accounting
    • All woody biomass verified and audited against FSC®(4), PEFC or SBP requirements
  • Adjusted EBITDA (including Pinnacle since 13 April 2021) up 60% to £40 million (H1 2020: £25 million)
    • Pellet production up 70% to 1.3Mt (H1 2020: 0.8Mt)
    • Cost of production down 8% to $141/t(5) (H1 2020: $154/t(5))
  • Near-term developments in US Southeast (2021-22)
    • Commissioning of LaSalle expansion, Demopolis and first satellite plant in H2
  • Other opportunities for growth and cost reduction
    • Increased production capacity, supply of biomass to third parties and expansion of fuel envelope to include lower cost biomass

Generation – flexible and renewable generation

  • 12% of UK’s renewable electricity, strong operational performance and system support services
  • Adjusted EBITDA down 14% to £185 million (H1 2020: £214 million)
    • Biomass – Lower achieved power prices and higher GBP cost of biomass reflecting historical power and FX hedging
    • Strong system support (balancing mechanism, Ancillary Services and optimisation) of £70 million (H1 2020: £66 million) – additional coal operations and continued good hydro and pumped storage performance, in addition to coal operations
    • Coal – utilisation of residual coal stock in Q1 2021 and capture of higher power prices
  • Pumped storage / hydro – good operational and system support performance
    • £34 million of Adjusted EBITDA (Cruachan, Lanark, Galloway schemes and Daldowie) (H1 2020: £35 million)
  • Ongoing cost reductions to support operating model for biomass at Drax Power Station from 2027
    • End of commercial coal operations in March, formal closure September 2022 – reduction in fixed cost base
    • Major planned outage for biomass CfD unit – August to November 2021 – including third turbine upgrade delivering improved thermal efficiency and lower maintenance cost, supporting lower cost biomass operations
    • Trials to expand range of lower cost biomass fuels – up to 35% load achieved in test runs on one unit
  • Strong contracted power position – 29.3TWh sold forward at £52.1/MWh 2021-2023. Opportunities to capture higher power prices in future periods, subject to liquidity
As at 25 July 2021 202120222023
Fixed price power sales (TWh) 15.99.14.3
-      CfD(6)3.80.6-
-      ROC10.88.44.0
-      Other1.30.10.3
At an average achieved price (£ per MWh)51.752.452.7

Customers – renewable electricity and services under long-term contracts to high-quality I&C customer base

 

  • Adjusted EBITDA loss of £5 million inclusive of £10-15 million impact of Covid-19 (H1 2020 £37 million loss inclusive of £44 million impact of Covid-19)
  • Continuing development of Industrial & Commercial (I&C) portfolio
    • Focusing on key sectors to increase sales to high-quality counterparties supporting generation route to market
    • Energy services expand the Group’s system support capability and customer sustainability objectives
  • Closure of Oxford and Cardiff offices as part of SME strategic review and the rebranding of the Haven Power I&C business to Drax
  • Continue to evaluate options for SME portfolio to maximise value and alignment with strategy

Other financial information

  • Total operating profit from continuing operations of £84 million including £20 million mark-to-market gain on derivative contracts and acquisition related costs of £10 million and restructuring costs of £2 million
  • Total loss after tax from continuing operations of £6 million including a £48 million charge from revaluing deferred tax balances following announcement of future UK tax rate changes
  • Total loss after tax from continuing operations of £6 million including a £48 million charge from revaluing deferred tax balances following confirmation of UK corporation tax rate increases from 2023
  • Capital investment of £71 million (H1 2020: £78 million) – continued investment in biomass strategy
    • Full year expectation of £210–230 million, includes pellet plant developments – LaSalle expansion, satellite plants and commissioning of Demopolis
  • Group cost of debt now below 3.5% reflecting refinancing of Canadian facilities in July 2021
  • Net debt of £1,029 million (31 December 2020: £776 million), including cash and cash equivalents of £406 million (31 December 2020: £290 million)
    • 5x net debt to Adjusted EBITDA, with £666 million of total cash and committed facilities (31 December 2020: £682 million)
    • Continue to expect around 2.0x net debt to Adjusted EBITDA by end of 2022
View complete half year report View investor presentation Listen to webcast

Refinancing of Pinnacle Debt with Lower Cost ESG Facility

Demopolis wood pellet plant being constructed

RNS Number: 9930E
Drax Group plc
(“Drax” or the “Group”; Symbol:DRX)

Drax is pleased to announce that it has completed the refinancing of the Canadian dollar facilities it acquired as part of the Group’s acquisition of Pinnacle Renewable Energy Inc. (Pinnacle) in April 2021.

The new C$300 million term facility (“the Facility”) matures in 2024, with an option to extend by two years(1), and has a customary margin grid referenced over CDOR(2).

A Pinnacle wood pellet plant

A Pinnacle wood pellet plant

The Facility reduces further the Group’s all-in cost of debt to below 3.5% and includes an embedded ESG component which adjusts the margin payable based on Drax’s carbon intensity measured against an annual benchmark.

The Facility, along with surplus cash, replaces Pinnacle’s approximately C$435 million facilities which had a cost of over 5.5%.

Enquiries

Drax Investor Relations: Mark Strafford

+44 (0) 7730 763 949

Media

Drax External Communications: Ali Lewis

+44 (0) 7712 670 888

Website: www.Drax.com

END

Acquisition of Joint Venture Interest from Westervelt

RNS Number : 7524D
Drax Group plc
(“Drax” or the “Group”; Symbol:DRX)

Drax is pleased to announce that it has agreed to acquire a 20% minority interest in Alabama Pellets, LLC (“Alabama Pellets”) – the joint venture which owns the Demopolis and Aliceville pellet plants – from The Westervelt Company (“Westervelt”) for $29.7 million cash consideration. The acquisition will increase the Group’s interest in Alabama Pellets to 90% and provide Drax with economic control over a further c.130,000 tonnes of biomass production capacity per annum. Completion is expected to take place in July 2021.

Westervelt is considered to be a Related Party under the UK Listing Rules with the proposed transaction constituting a Smaller Related Party Transaction under Listing Rule 11.1.10.

The acquisition of Pinnacle Renewable Energy Inc. included a change of control provision over Alabama Pellets. Drax has been in discussions with Alabama Pellets joint venture partners regarding future working relationships, including their minority interests. The remaining joint venture partner, Two Rivers Lumber Co., LLC, holds a 10% economic interest.

Demopolis and Aliceville are located in Alabama, in the US southeast, close to the Group’s existing US operations and have a combined nameplate production capacity of 660,000 tonnes per annum. Aliceville was commissioned in 2018 and Demopolis is expected to be commissioned in 2021.

Drax Group has 13 operational pellet plants (including Aliceville) plus satellite plant developments and Demopolis, with total nameplate production capacity of 4.9 million tonnes per annum once commissioned. These plants are geographically diverse and sited in three major fibre baskets (British Columbia, Alberta and the US southeast) with access to four deep water ports providing routes to markets in Asia, Europe and the UK.

Enquiries

Drax Investor Relations: Mark Strafford

+44 (0) 7730 763 949

Media

Drax External Communications: Ali Lewis

+44 (0) 7712 670 888

Website: www.Drax.com

END

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

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

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is the process of capturing and permanently storing carbon dioxide (CO2) from biomass (organic matter) energy generation.

Why is BECCS important for decarbonisation? 

Sustainably sourced biomass-generated energy (bioenergy) can be carbon neutral, as plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow. This, in turn, offsets CO2 emissions released when the biomass is combusted as fuel.

When sustainable bioenergy is paired with carbon capture and storage it becomes a source of negative emissions, as CO2 is permanently removed from the carbon cycle.

Experts believe that negative emissions technologies (NETs) are crucial to helping countries meet the long-term goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement. As BECCS is the most scalable of these technologies this decade, it has a key role to play in combating climate change.

How is the bioenergy for BECCS generated?

Most bioenergy is produced by combusting biomass as a fuel in boilers or furnaces to produce high-pressure steam that drives electricity-generating turbines. Alternatively, bioenergy generation can use a wide range of organic materials, including crops specifically planted and grown for the purpose, as well as residues from agriculture, forestry and wood products industries. Energy-dense forms of biomass, such as compressed wood pellets, enable bioenergy to be generated on a much larger scale. Fuels like wood pellets can also be used as a substitute for coal in existing power stations.

How is the carbon captured?

BECCS uses a post-combustion carbon capture process, where solvents isolate CO2 from the flue gases produced when the biomass is combusted. The captured CO2 is pressurised and turned into a liquid-like substance so it can then be transported by pipeline.

How is the carbon stored?

Captured CO2 can be safely and permanently injected into naturally occurring porous rock formations, for example unused natural gas reservoirs, coal beds that can’t be mined, or saline aquifers (water permeable rocks saturated with salt water). This process is known as sequestration.

Over time, the sequestered CO2 may react with the minerals, locking it chemically into the surrounding rock through a process called mineral storage.

BECCS fast facts

Is BECCS sustainable?

 Bioenergy can be generated from a range of biomass sources ranging from agricultural by-products to forestry residues to organic municipal waste. During their lifetime plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, this balances out the CO2that is released when the biomass is combusted.

What’s crucial is that the biomass is sustainably sourced, be it from agriculture or forest waste. Responsibly managed sources of biomass are those which naturally regenerate or are replanted and regrown, where there’s a increase of carbon stored in the land and where the natural environment is protected from harm.

Biomass wood pellets used as bioenergy in the UK, for example, are only sustainable when the forests they are sourced from continue to grow. Sourcing decisions must be based on science and not adversely affect the long-term potential of forests to store and sequester carbon.

Biomass pellets can also create a sustainable market for forestry products, which serves to encourage reforestation and afforestation – leading to even more CO2 being absorbed from the atmosphere.

Go deeper:

  • The triple benefits for the environment and economy of deploying BECCS in the UK.
  • How BECCS can offer essential grid stability as the electricity system moves to low- and zero-carbon sources.
  • Producing biomass from sustainable forests is key to ensuring BECCS can deliver negative emissions.
  • 5 innovative projects where carbon capture is already underway around the world
  • 7 places on the path to negative emissions through BECCS

Evaluating regrowth post-harvest with accurate data and satellite imagery

  • Drax has been using effective post-harvest evaluations, which includes remote sensing technology and satellite imagery

  • Alongside sustainable forest management, monitoring can help support rapid regrowth after harvesting

  • Evidence shows healthy managed forests with no signs of deforestation or degradation

As part of Drax’s world-leading programme of demonstrating biomass sustainability, including ongoing work on catchment area analysis (CAA), responsible sourcing policy and healthy forest landscapes (HFL). We have also been trialling the use of high-resolution satellite imagery to monitor forest conditions on specific harvesting sites in the years after harvesting has taken place, in addition to the catchment area level monitoring of trends and data. Post-harvest evaluations (PHE) are an essential part of an ongoing sustainability monitoring process, ensuring that the future forest resource is protected and maintained and that landowners restore forests after harvesting to prevent deforestation or degradation.

The most effective form of PHE is for an experienced local forester to walk and survey the harvesting site to check that new trees are growing and that the health and quality of the young replacement forest is maintained.

Rapid regrowth

The images below show some of the sites surrounding Drax’s Amite Bioenergy pellet plant in Mississippi, with trees at various stages of regrowth in the years after harvesting.

A full site inspection can therefore enable a forester to determine whether the quantity and distribution of healthy trees is sufficient to make a productive forest, equivalent to the area that was harvested. It can also identify if there are any health problems, pest damage or management issues such as  weed growth or water-logging that should be resolved.

Typically, this will be the responsibility of the forest owner or their forest manager and is a regular part of ongoing forest management activity. This degree of survey and assessment is not practical or cost-effective where a third-party consumer of wood fibre purchases a small proportion (typically 20-25 tonnes per acre) of the low-grade fibre produced at a harvest as a one-off transaction for its wood pellet plant..  It is time consuming to walk every acre of restocked forest and it is not always possible to get an owner’s permission to access their land.

Forests from space

Therefore, an alternative methodology is required to make an assessment about the condition of forest lands that have been harvested to supply biomass, without the need to physically inspect each site.  One option is to use remote sensing and satellite imagery to view each harvested site in the years after biomass sourcing, this helps to monitor restocking and new tree growth.

Drax has been testing the remote sensing approach using Maxar’s commercial satellite imagery.  Maxar has four satellites on orbit that collect more than three million square kilometres of high-resolution imagery every day. Drax accesses this imagery through Maxar’s subscription service SecureWatch.

To test the viability of this methodology, Drax has been looking at harvesting sites in Mississippi that supplied biomass to the Amite Bioenergy pellet plant in 2015 and in 2017.  As part of the sustainability checks that are carried out prior to purchasing wood fibre, Drax collects information on each harvesting tract. This includes the location of the site, the type of harvest, the owner’s long-term management intentions and species and volume details.

This data can then be used at a later date to revisit the site and monitor the condition of the area. Third-party auditors, for instance Through Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP) certification, do visit harvesting sites, however this is typically during the year of harvest rather than after restocking. Maxar has historical imagery of this region from 2010, which is prior to any harvesting for wood pellets.  The image below shows a harvesting site near the pellet plant at Gloster, Mississippi, before any harvesting has taken place.

March 2010 (100m)

Satellite image © 2021 Maxar Technologies.

The image below shows the same site in 2017 immediately following harvesting.

December 2017 (100m)

Satellite image © 2021 Maxar Technologies.

If we look again at this same site three years after harvesting, we can see the rows of trees that have been planted and the quality of the regrowth. This series of images demonstrates that this harvested area has remained a forest, has not been subject to deforestation and that the regrowth appears to be healthy at this stage.

August 2020 (50m)

Satellite image © 2021 Maxar Technologies.

Another site in the Amite catchment area is shown below. The image shows a mature forest prior to harvesting, the site has been previously thinned as can be seen from the thinned rows that are evident in the imagery.

May 2010 (200m)

Satellite image © 2021 Maxar Technologies.

Looking at the same site in the year after harvesting, the clear cut area can be seen clearly. Some green vegetation cover can also be seen on the harvested area, but this is weed growth rather than replanted trees. Some areas of mature trees have been left at the time of harvesting, and are visible as a grey colour in the 2010 image. These are likely to be streamside management zones that have been left to maintain biodiversity and to protect water quality, with the grey winter colouring suggesting that they are hardwoods.

September 2018 (200m)

Satellite image © 2021 Maxar Technologies.

Three years after the harvest, in a zoomed in view from the previous image, clear rows of replanted trees can be seen in the imagery.  This demonstrates that the owner has successfully restocked the forest area and that the newly planted forest appears healthy and well established.

August 2020 (50m)

Satellite image © 2021 Maxar Technologies.

While examining different harvesting sites in satellite imagery, Drax noted that not every site had evidence of tree growth, particularly within the first three years after harvesting. Deliberate conversion of land to non-forest use, such as for conversion to pasture, agricultural crops or urban development, is likely to be evident fairly soon after harvesting.

Preparing for planting

Some forest owners like to leave a harvested site unplanted for a couple of years to allow ground vegetation and weed growth to establish, this can then be treated to ensure that trees can be planted and that the weed growth does not impede the establishment of the new forest, this process can mean that trees are not visible in satellite imagery for three to four years after harvesting.

The image below shows a site three years after harvesting with no evidence of tree growth.  Given that no conversion of land use is evident and that the site appears to be clear of weed growth, this is likely to be an example of where the owners have waited to clear the site of weeds prior to replanting.  This site can be monitored in future imagery from the Maxar satellites to ensure that forest regrowth does take place.

November 2020 (100m)

Satellite image © 2021 Maxar Technologies.

Drax will continue to use Maxar’s SecureWatch platform to monitor the regrowth of harvesting sites and will publish more detailed results and analysis when this process has been developed further.  The platform allows ongoing comparison of a site over time and could prove a more efficient method of analysis than ground survey.  In conjunction with the CAA and HFL work, PHE can add remote sensing as a valuable monitoring and evidence-gathering tool to demonstrate robust biomass sustainability standards and a positive environmental impact.

Go deeper: 

Discover the steps we take to ensure our wood pellet supply chain is better for our forests, our planet and our future here, how to plant more trees and better manage them, our responsible sourcing policy for biomass from sustainable forests and a guide to sustainable forest management of the Southern Working Forest.