Tag: energy policy

Decarbonisation: the next step

Turbines spinning

Half a decade ago we began a major transformation at Drax Power Station converting it to run on sustainable biomass. This week we’ve reached another milestone in that journey.

We’ve been granted a contract for difference (CfD), a UK government financial support that’s now been approved by the European Commission. It allows us to fully convert a third power generation unit to run entirely on compressed wood pellets, a form of renewable biomass. The granting of the CfD is a symbolic moment in our decarbonisation journey – it marks the close of one phase of development where the power station now makes more renewable than fossil fuel power, and the start of the next.

This next chapter began when we announced two major projects: the acquisition of Opus Energy and our plans to build four new rapid response, open cycle gas turbine (OCGT) power stations.

Like the upgrade of Drax Power Station, these new peaking plants are an important step in helping the country achieve a decarbonised energy system. They will do this by enabling more renewables to come onto the system.

The need for a diverse power network

Nearly 45% of the UK’s power already comes from gas, mostly generated by combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power plants. But while CCGT plants can deliver a steady supply of baseload power and flex up and down within seconds – just like Drax Power Station does with both coal and biomass – they can’t turn on and be at full capacity at very short notice. Starting from cold to quickly power the equivalent of a small city in a matter of minutes rather than hours or days, however, is exactly what the UK power network is increasingly going to need.

Solar and wind power can’t generate electricity when it’s dark or still. So to facilitate more of these intermittent renewables coming onto the grid, we need sources that can be quickly ramped up to ‘fill the gaps’ when lower carbon technologies aren’t able to provide the essential power for the modern world. This is where OCGT stations come in, alongside other standby technologies such as storage and demand side response.

OCGT stations have turbines that work like jet engines. This means they can start up incredibly quickly, getting to full load in just 30 minutes, meeting surges quickly when intermittent renewables can’t and nuclear, biomass and CCGT power stations are already providing baseload electricity.

Our proposed plants could be online as soon as the winter of 2020/21 – a few years before the last remaining coal-fired power stations close down. They will operate for roughly 500 hours a year (with a maximum availability of 1,500 hours depending on demand) and each will have a capacity of 299 MW. Each will generate enough instant power to simultaneously boil 120,000 kettles.

As well as allowing more renewables onto the system these gas plants support the government’s vision for reducing the carbon intensity of our energy grid – gas has half the carbon footprint of coal. More than that, we have expertise in it.

Drax CEO, Dorothy Thompson, has developed and operated 3,160 MW of gas assets in the past for Intergen, while a number of our engineers have worked across development, construction and operation of gas projects. We trade in it, too, so we know the market well. In short, a move into gas is one we are well suited too.

Drax Power CEO Andy Koss in a hard hat standing in front of a Drax biomass train

A secure economic future

Thanks to capacity market contracts, our OCGT plants will have limited reliance on income from the energy markets in the future. The capacity market is a government scheme designed to boost the UK’s energy security. It does this by paying new and existing power plants a fixed price to be available to generate electricity in future winters, the time of the year when demand is at its highest. The price they are paid is determined by a competitive auction, which allows government to secure as much capacity as it needs at the lowest price possible.

Building new power stations requires substantial investment, so having fixed-price contracts for power allows generators – like us – and their shareholders to invest in low carbon projects , safe in the knowledge that it will be economical to do so.

We’re aiming to secure 15-year capacity contracts for one OCGT in England and one in Wales within the next two years. In the most recent capacity auction , the price was driven too low to justify a commitment to build the first two plants. This doesn’t mean development on the plants will stop. Critical development work will continue throughout 2017 and next December the plants will be re-entered into the competition.

Continued commitment to biomass

Our new power stations mark a new chapter for Drax Group, but what they don’t affect is our commitment to biomass. Drax Power Station is already generating a majority of its electricity using high density wood pellets. And the granting of the CfD means we can now finalise the coal-to-biomass upgrade of half of the UK’s biggest power station and continue to invest in these assets. With the right support, we stand ready to complete the conversion of our North Yorkshire site and run entirely on sustainably-sourced biomass.

A study from engineering and design company Arup found that, after onshore wind, converted biomass power plants are the most affordable large-scale renewable power solution in the UK. More than that, the costs of undertaking this conversion have come down over the last few years. However, there is still room to bring this cost down further and we believe this needs to happen before we can fully convert Drax Power Station.

We are as determined to achieve this as we have ever been. Our view has always been to ensure we provide power for a brighter future and our new power stations are the next step in doing this.

Power and the rise of electric cars

Power supply for electric car charging. Electric car charging station. Close up of the power supply plugged into an electric car being charged.

All great technological innovations need infrastructure to match. The world didn’t change from candles to lightbulbs overnight – power stations had to be built, electricity cables rolled out, and buildings fitted with wiring. The same is true of electric vehicles (EV).

Think of the number of petrol stations lining the UK roads. If EVs continue their rise in popularity, the country will need electric car-charging facilities to augment and then replace these petrol stations.

This could mean big extensions of electricity grid infrastructure, both in the building of new power generation capacity to meet demand, and in the extension of the networks themselves.

In short, it could mean a significant change in how electricity is used and supplied.

The need for better electricity infrastructure

In 2013, only 3,500 of newly registered cars in the UK were plug-in electric or hybrid EVs. In 2016, that number jumped to 63,000. Their use is rising rapidly, but the lack of infrastructure has kept a cap on the number of EVs on UK roads. That is starting to change.

As of 2019, all new and refurbished houses in the EU will have to be fitted with an electric car charging point, according to a draft directive announced by Brussels. The UK will probably no longer be an EU member by the time the directive comes into effect, but nevertheless, the UK government is pursuing its own ways to account for the rise of EVs. It has pledged more than £600 million between 2015 and 2020 to support ultra-low-emission vehicles – £38 million of this has already been earmarked for public charging points.

There are more innovative responses to EV rise, too. Nissan, in partnership with Italian energy provider Enel, has announced it will install around one hundred ‘car-to-grid’ charging points across the UK. With their innovative V2G technology, cars plugged into these sites will be able to both charge their batteries and feed stored energy back to the National Grid when necessary. So when there is a peak in demand, the Grid could access the cars’ stored energy to help meet it.

The total capacity of the 18,000 Nissan electric vehicles currently operational on UK roads comes to around 180 MW. So even today – before electric vehicles have really taken off – this could give the National Grid an additional supply roughly the size of a small power station.

Peaks in electricity demand, however, tend to occur in the late afternoon or evening as it gets dark and more lighting and heating gets switched on. This also happens to be rush hour, so under this scheme the time of day the cars are most likely to be on the roads is also when it’d be most helpful to have them plugged in. This could lead to financial incentives for people to give up the flexibility of driving their cars only when they need to.

Power supply for electric car charging. Electric car charging station.

More electric cars, more demand for electricity, more pollution?

More EVs on the road makes sound environmental sense – they enable a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions – but ultimately the energy still has to come from somewhere. That means more power stations.

The scale of this new demand shouldn’t be underestimated: if European drivers were to go 80% electric, some studies have suggested it would require 150 GW of additional on-demand capacity – the equivalent of 40 Drax-sized power stations.

But if EVs are to live up to their green potential, that additional power needs to come from innovations in storage (such as in the Nissan example) and from renewable sources like wind, solar and biomass. Fossil fuels would ideally be used only to plug any gaps that intermittency creates – for example by briefly firing up the small gas power stations Drax plans to build in England and Wales.

What does this mean for generators?

Drax, as operator of the UK’s largest biomass power station and with plans for new, rapid response open cycle gas turbines (OCGTs), is well placed to be at the forefront of providing reliable, affordable power in the event of a widespread rollout of electric vehicles. The OCGTs in particular, are designed for use in peak times which, in the future, could be when the nation’s electric vehicles are plugged in overnight – today this is when electricity demand is at its lowest.

A future of more electric cars is a positive one. They’re cleaner, more efficient, and they are well suited to our increasingly urban lives. But now that we have the technology, we need to ensure we can deliver the lower-carbon infrastructure they need.

Retooling for a post-coal future

The energy system in Great Britain is dramatically changing. Where it was once an industry dominated by coal, a predictable but dirty fuel, now our power increasingly comes from renewables. This is a trend that will continue, forcing more coal off the system.

Drax has a role in this new future of renewable power. We have already converted half of our power station in North Yorkshire to run on renewable biomass, and now, to support the needs of a system increasingly dominated by intermittent renewables like solar and wind, we are developing plans to build four new state-of-the-art flexible power stations – two in England and two in Wales.

Each will be 299 MW in size and powered by gas. Two of them could be producing electricity by 2020. It’s the next step for us in helping change the way energy is generated for a better future.


Supporting a renewable energy mix

Wind and solar accounted for 15% of Britain’s electricity mix between July and September from an installed capacity that has increased six fold in just six years. Biomass generation at Drax rose from almost nothing to producing 20% the country’s renewable power in the first half of this year. Renewable energy has come on leaps and bounds this decade – perhaps more than anyone ever thought it would.

But as well as being much lower in carbon emissions, renewables like wind and solar operate very differently to the fuels the GB Grid was built on – they’re intermittent. They only work when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. So when it suddenly becomes still or dark, we need alternatives that plug the gap, deliver power and boost security of supply.

Biomass is one part of how we can do this using lower carbon fuels. Compressed wood pellets (the biomass used at Drax) is a renewable fuel that can be used to generate baseload power that can also be dialled up and down to meet demand. Like coal, it can also provide the ancillary services the Grid needs to stay stable.

Unlike combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power plants, which currently supply roughly 40% of the UK’s power and take 1.5 hours to start up from cold, our new open cycle gas turbine (OCGT) plants are like big jet engines – generating electricity at full power in just 20 minutes from cold or 10 minutes from a warm standby. It’s an incredibly fast turnaround and it’s what the energy network needs.

And because it’s a lower carbon fuel than coal with higher flexibility it will support the UK’s decarbonisation targets – by enabling more wind and solar on the Grid. We plan to use OCGTs to plug the gaps that intermittency creates – essentially flicking the switch on and off at very short notice. We anticipate they would run for no more than 1,500 hours per year – only at times when the electricity system is under stress. Through supporting more intermittent renewables we also help to enable more coal off the system.

A better future for customers

This new future will not only mean changes for us, the generators, but for customers, too.

How energy is supplied and used is evolving, and this is something that Drax can support with the growing retail side of our business.

We’re a company with a wealth of expertise in renewable power and we can use this to help deliver electricity to business customers in a way that caters for today’s market. We’re already doing this with Haven Power, but now we’re extending this with the acquisition of Opus Energy. With this new company as part of Drax Group we will be able to grow our existing retail offering, providing more of the UK’s growing businesses and established industrial and corporates not only with electricity, but also with gas. Our retail offering will provide businesses with a route to sell the power they generate but do not need – plus expertise in how they can use energy more efficiently.


These are the first steps in a new chapter for Drax. There will be more research and development to come. In the future we’ll be looking at how we can extend our American compressed wood pellet supply business, Drax Biomass, and at the potential for power storage systems.

If we want to continue to be a truly modern energy company that delivers on our aim of changing the way energy is generated, supplied and used for a better future, we need to be able to adapt. It’s always been a part of Drax’s history and it will be a part of our future.

Some like it hot: how temperature affects electricity prices


In 2012, Europe faced an extreme cold wave. Temperatures in France dropped to minus four degrees Celsius, far below its average of five above.

As people huddled indoors, electric heaters were dialled up and lights were switched on. Electricity demand soared. It topped at 102 GW, surpassing the country’s previous peak by more than 20 GW. France had to import power from neighbouring countries.

The low temperatures drove demand so high the country couldn’t manage on its own. It’s something we see across the world – temperature peaks drive how and when we use electricity, increasing demand in the colder Northern European countries as the temperature falls, and acting inversely in hotter Southern countries.

But more than just driving up how much electricity we need, the temperature can affect how much we pay for it, too.

Putting a price on electricity

In the UK electricity is bought and sold by power generators, energy suppliers and the National Grid by the megawatt hour (MWh). One MWh is roughly enough power to boil 400 kettles and although prices fluctuate significantly, on average one MWh costs roughly £50 in the UK. In winter, when UK electricity demand peaks it’s estimated that for every degree the temperature drops below 15 Celsius, demand rises by 820 MW.

Electric Insights, an independent report produced by researchers at Imperial College London and commissioned by Drax via Imperial Consultants, looks at the UK’s publicly available electricity data and clearly shows the trend.

Electricity demand, temperature and prices

As the temperature drops, demand rises.

This raised demand affects the price of electricity in one obvious way: consumers’ bills rise because they’re using more of it. A less obvious impact is its effect on the production and supply cost of electricity from generator to the high voltage electricity transmission grid.

How temperature affects supply

In cold weather power plants work better. Cooling towers are more efficient, power cables are more conductive, and less energy is needed to help keep generating equipment from overheating. This all adds to small cost savings, which in turn can make electricity cheaper.

However, during colder weather the amount of gas used in the UK goes up – largely due to the rise in heating – which raises its price and this has a knock effect on electricity. For every 1p increase in the cost of gas, the cost of generating 1 MWh by a CCGT (combined cycle gas turbine) power station increases by around 70p. As CCGTs generate a large percentage of Britain’s electricity, the overall price of electricity also goes up.

But a bigger cost-determining factor is the increasing variety in today’s energy make up. Renewables like wind and solar are intermittent energy sources. Solar can’t function at night or when it’s overcast; wind turbines don’t rotate when it’s still, so when it is especially cold, dark or without much wind, the Grid needs to bring in additional flexible power generated by sources like biomass, gas and coal. These technologies can either deliver power to the Grid all the time – known as baseload – or just when demand rises, when they can be dialled up quickly.

But in the event of extreme weather, the demand for power can surge and the Grid needs to bring in additional generation capacity. In Britain, there are smaller power stations fuelled by diesel, oil or gas that lie dormant for much of the year but can start up at short notice to provide this boost of generation to meet demand.

Activating and running these plants quickly for short amounts of time can be expensive, and this can subsequently affect electricity price and lead to spikes in the winter.

Pylons in the countryside with the sun behind themThe effect on the bottom line

This leads to the following trend: for every degree Celsius the temperature falls below 10, there is a corresponding rise of £1.10 MWh. It is also possible for increases in temperature to cause increased prices, but this is usually in countries where air conditioners and electrically-powered cooling units are hooked up to their own national or regional electricity grid. For better or worse, this is not a problem that affects the UK, but it’s important to understand that maintaining grid stability will always have its costs, whatever the weather.


The new Renewable Energy Directive and what it means for biomass

European union flag against parliament in Brussels, Belgium

***This story was published the day before the announcement by the European Commission. Please scroll to the bottom of this page for the Drax view ***.

When the European Union set out its policy for the promotion of renewable energy in the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive (RED) it set a very ambitious target: by 2020, renewables should make up 20% of the EU’s energy consumption. Each Member State was given a specific goal and made to detail exactly how it would hit this.

The Directive was comprehensive in many ways, but it didn’t include a clear sustainability policy for solid biomass, including compressed wood pellets. As one of the largest sources of renewable energy in Europe, this left a policy gap that many voices – including Drax – have called to be filled.

It’s a wish that will now be granted. A revised RED is set to be published by the EU that will specify clear criteria for all biomass.

“Sustainability has always been absolutely central to our biomass strategy but Drax has always argued that there is a right way to source biomass and a wrong way.”

Dorothy Thompson, Drax Group CEO, July 2014

Importance of sustainable biomass

Biomass is a well-established and essential part of the renewable energy mix. It offers a unique mix of reliability, flexibility and affordability, all while helping to deliver carbon reductions. This makes it particularly important as countries like the UK seek to phase out coal generation and hit the targets set out in the Paris Agreement.

However, in order to secure these carbon benefits biomass needs to be produced sustainably. This means that it comes from responsibly-managed, growing forests, and that the emissions from the supply chain are measured and minimised.

In the UK there are already binding sustainability criteria but this isn’t the case across the EU. Biomass use in the UK is regulated under the EU Timber Regulations and UK’s own Renewable Obligation (RO) biomass sustainability criteria.

The RO is a form of government support designed to incentivise large scale renewable electricity generation in the UK, and to qualify for this, energy companies must adhere to sustainability standards such as properly accounting for their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and only sourcing from responsibly managed land and forests.

An EU-wide approach to biomass that follows the UK’s could see the implementation of a risk-based scheme that asks large energy companies to prove how they mitigate against a set of identified risks – like those in the RO criteria. However, it’s important that compliance with these is independently verified – something that could be done by using independent schemes such as the Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP).

The SBP carries out supply-base evaluation of pellet producers to ensure the wood they’re using is qualified as sustainable and they’re meeting the RO criteria. Programmes like the SBP are already being used by most major biomass power generators in the EU and could act as a blueprint for the future.

Two workers stand next to machinery at the Morehouse facility in the USA.

Efficiency where effective

Only a few of the power stations across the EU are suitable for conversion from coal to biomass but those that are, like Drax, can deliver fast, significant carbon savings.

The thermal efficiency of such stations may not be as high as a newly built plant, but they do allow governments to quickly move away from coal. More than that, these plants can continue to provide the critical services – such as voltage control and black start – the grid needs to remain stable and that other renewables can’t.

Drax is one of these stations, and in the first half of 2016 it was able to deliver around 20% of the UK’s renewable power. Thanks to its conversion to biomass, it now does this with over 80% carbon reductions relative to coal.

With the abundance of suitable and sustainably-grown fibre that can be used for biomass electricity generation, there is a strong case for the EU to encourage the coal phase out by encouraging others to undergo conversion from coal to biomass.

But what’s also needed is a clear set of sustainability criteria for biomass. The move to define this is a step in the right direction but the final EU proposal needs to be a practical one.

If the updated RED achieves this, it will mean a bright future for renewable energy in Europe and a clearer path for meeting the continent’s Paris Agreement targets.

*** 30 November, 2016 UPDATE ***

Drax welcomes Renewable Energy Directive proposal

Drax welcomes the publication of the Renewable Energy Directive and bioenergy policy proposal. Drax has been at the forefront of calling for standards based on a risk-assessment to demonstrate the sustainability of biomass used for energy production.

Matt Willey, Public Affairs Director of Drax Power had said that:

“Drax has campaigned for a robust, pragmatic biomass sustainability policy for the whole EU for many years and today is a step in the right direction. It is important that large users of biomass can demonstrate forest regeneration is taking place, that areas of high conservation value are protected, that soil and water quality is maintained and that harvesting does not exceed the long-term production capacity of the forest. We welcome the fact the Commission proposes that voluntary national or international schemes, including those which use a risk based approach, can be used to provide evidence of sustainability.”

“The UK already has the toughest sustainability rules in the world so Drax can be sure our compressed wood pellets are sustainable but it makes sense to have a common policy across the EU.”

Drax Power has made huge efforts to demonstrate the sustainability of its biomass. Sourcing from regions with large surpluses combined with low wood paying capability, Drax is able to track and trace every shipment back to low risk areas, which assures that biodiversity is protected and promotes sustainable forest management.

The cleanest year in Britain’s electricity

Cleanest year in Britain's electricity history

Amid the political upheaval that is characterising 2016 you may have missed the quiet victory of the UK’s low-carbon energy sector: for the first time ever, the third quarter (Q3) of 2016 saw more than 50% of the Britain’s power come from low-carbon energy sources. Five years ago, low-carbon sources made up just over a quarter.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that renewable energy sources made up the full 50% – in fact, nuclear made up a considerable chunk – but it hints at the big changes we’re seeing in the way the country is sourcing its power.

For one, it’s a further sign of coal’s diminishing life. During the period July to September 2012 coal supplied 38% of Britain’s electricity – during this year’s Q3 it supplied just 3%. As a result, per-unit carbon emissions from electricity consumption are at their lowest levels ever. The Carbon Price Floor – also known as the carbon tax and designed to assist energy companies like Drax invest in renewable and lower carbon generation – has played a big role in reducing coal’s contribution.

The findings come from Electric Insights, an independent report produced by researchers from Imperial College London and commissioned by Drax, that looks at the UK’s publicly available electricity data and aims to inform the debate on Britain’s electricity system.

Beyond the continued decline of coal, it shows there’s a growing diversity in low-carbon energy sources fuelling the country and that there’s a positive outlook for a cleaner electricity future.

Here we look at those low-carbon sources and how their use has changed over the last five years.

Nuclear produces 26% of Britain's power (Q3, 2016)


At 26% of the total, nuclear made up the largest proportion of low-carbon power generation across Q3 2016.

That was good news for the sector, which went through a turbulent summer after plans for the Hinkley Point C reactor were momentarily threatened following the dissolution of the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) after the Brexit vote.

The eventual decision to continue with Hinkley C, however, means that more baseload nuclear power, in the form of large power stations and also possibly small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs), will be coming on to the system in the coming years. They will in the main replace older nuclear power stations set to be decommissioned.

Wind produces 10% of Britain's power (Q3, 2016)


Wind power made up 10% of total low-carbon power generation between July and September, and was the largest renewable source of the quarter.

As recently as 2011, electricity generated by wind accounted for just 4% of Britain’s low carbon energy supplies – a 150% increase in just five years. This is in part due to huge offshore projects such as the 630 MW London Array in the Thames Estuary and the 576MW Gwynt y Môr situated off the coast of North Wales, which have contributed to bringing the UK’s installed capacity to around 14 GW

The UK is now the world’s sixth largest producer of wind power behind China, the USA, India, Germany and Spain.

Solar produces 5% of Britain's power (Q3, 2016)


Following wind power as the second largest renewable contributor to the country’s low-carbon energy needs was solar.

Five years ago solar’s contribution was so negligible it didn’t even chart in the Electric Insights data. Fast forward to 2016 and Britain has a total installed solar capacity of nearly 10 GW. Again, this places the country sixth in the world for capacity behind China, Germany, Japan, the USA and Italy.

Biomass produces 4% of Britain's power (Q3, 2016)


Biomass – a unique low-carbon fuel in that it can deliver both baseload and flexible power – made up 4% of the UK’s power needs in Q3 2016. A good proportion of that came from Drax, which has over the last five years been upgrading from coal to run on compressed wood pellets.

Like solar, biomass generation didn’t even chart in 2011, but today. In fact, between July and September biomass, along with solar and wind, supplied 20% of the country’s electricity – a huge proof point for the rise of renewables. Where biomass sits apart from those two sources, however, is that it isn’t dependent on weather and even though the country has less much less biomass generation capacity than the two intermittent technologies, it produces nearly as much energy as them. This makes it an ideal baseload partner for sources that do (i.e. wind and solar) as it can be dialled up and down to meet the energy demand of the country in seconds.

In the future there’s potential to increase this biomass capacity while saving bill payers money. Three of Drax’s six generating units run on biomass, but if all were to be upgraded as they could be in less than three years – Drax plus Lynemouth power station and one or two smaller biomass power stations – could generate roughly 10% of Britain’s electricity using compressed wood pellets by the time unabated coal power stations come off the system before the end of 2025.

Hydro produces 1% of Britain's power (Q3, 2016)


Hydropower made up just 1% of Britain’s power generation over the quarter. However, this is still up by 20% since 2011, when hydropower contributed just 0.8%. Total installed hydropower capacity is around 1.65GW.

However, studies have found the country has a potential hydropower capacity of close to double this amount, but as many of these sources are located in mountainous, rural landscape areas of natural importance, it’s doubtful whether hydropower will be deployed up to its full capabilities in the coming years.

Closing an historic year

May the 5th was an historic day in the UK – it was the first time since 1881 Britain burnt no coal to produce its electricity. It wasn’t an isolated incident, either. In the third quarter of 2016 Britain was completely coal free for nearly six days.

It’s a situation that is likely to continue in the future as low carbon energy sources – and in particular renewables – continue to grow in the country’s energy makeup. The outlook is a positive one. 2016 may have been the cleanest year in UK electricity we’ve seen so far, but it won’t be the cleanest year ever.

Explore the data in detail by visiting ElectricInsights.co.uk

Commissioned by Drax, Electric Insights is produced independently by a team of academics from Imperial College London, led by Dr Iain Staffell and facilitated by the College’s consultancy company – Imperial Consultants.

The turbulent history of coal

Aerial view of coal field

**9 May 2019 update: we have updated this story to mark the new GB record of continuous coal-free hours since 1882**

3490 BC

Households in China work out how to use coal for heat. The coal was bulky to transport, so settlements near forests probably burned it less often than wood.

4th century BC

Greek scientist Theophrastus makes a reference to coal as a fuel in his treatise, ‘On Stones’.

2nd century AD

By the 2nd century AD, the Romans were using coal from most of the main coalfields in Britain. Archaeologists have found flint axes from before the Roman era still embedded in coal. There is evidence that at this time people dug up coal on beaches then followed the seam of coal inland, encouraging them to investigate more sophisticated ways to mine it.

First millennium

Although it’s hard to date them precisely, early mines called ‘bell pits’ – deep holes which tapered outward at the bottom like a bell to provide a bigger surface area for mining – began to appear in the early part of the first millennium. These were lit by large candles burning animal fat and were dangerous: rocks could fall onto the miners and sometimes the pit would collapse entirely.

13th and 14th centuries

Room and pillar mines emerged as larger, more sophisticated versions of bell pits. In these pillars of coal were left standing to support the roof.

16th century

From the 1500s, mining expanded significantly. At this time coal was mostly used for heat by less well-off people. One observer wrote in 1587 that old men told him about “the multitude of chimneys lately erected, whereas in their young days there were not above two or three, if so many, in most uplandish towns of the realm.”


Great Britain was producing 2.7 million tonnes of coal per year, mostly for use in metal production.


In just half a century Britain ramps up coal production: it was producing 4.7 million tonnes of coal per year.

1763 to 1775

James Watt develops his steam engine, which was used to drain mines. Despite this, flooding remained a problem.


By the turn of the nineteenth century, Great Britain was producing 10 million tonnes of coal, driven by the rising demand of the Industrial Revolution. From about 1800, miners began to leave timber supports in place to hold up the roof of their pits, allowing them to follow coal seams deep into the earth. This was known as longwall mining.


Sir Humphrey Davy invents his safety lamp. It had a wire gauze around it so the flame would not encounter any gas and cause explosions. It became known as “the Miners’ Friend”.


Great Britain was producing 50 million tonnes of coal.


The world’s first steam driven power station was built on coal at Holborn Viaduct in London. It had a 27 tonne generator, enough to light 1,000 lamps. Later it was expanded to power 3,000. A second coal-fired power station opened later that year in the United States at Pearl Street Station in New York City. It initially served a load of 400 lamps and 82 customers but by 1884 it was powering more than 10,000 lamps.


Great Britain was producing 250 million tonnes of coal.


All Great British coal mines were nationalised (bought by the government) and placed under the control of the National Coal Board.


After the Selby coalfield was discovered in 1967, Drax Power Station was opened.

coal locomotive on rail tracks


Drax became the first coal-fired power station to install flue-gas desulphurisation technology, which removes 90% of coal’s harmful sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions.


From the eighties onwards, many coal mines closed and in 1994, British Coal (the successor to the National Coal Board) was privatised.


As a result of UK mine closures and proposed emissions regulations coming into force from 2008, power stations started to increase the amount of coal they imported. Drax Power Station’s supply was initially split between 50% indigenous coal and 50% imported. There was a steadily increasing emphasis on imports for the decade thereafter.


The Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD) came into force across the EU, limiting emissions of SO2, NOx and particulates.


The Drax team successfully adapted the boilers of the plant to combust wood pellets. This was proof that a coal-fired power plant could be converted to biomass.

March 2013

The White Rose carbon capture and storage (CCS) project was announced as one of two preferred bidders in the UK’s £1bn CCS Competition. This project looked to build a new 448 MWe coal-fired power station with CCS capabilities on the existing Drax Power Station site in Yorkshire. With CCS technology installed, the power station would be able to capture and safely store carbon emissions underground rather than releasing them into the atmosphere.

1st April 2013

The Carbon Price Floor was launched in the UK. A tax on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, it is designed to provide an incentive to invest in low-carbon power generation.

September 2015

Due to reduced renewable subsidies, Drax withdrew from the White Rose CCS project.

18th November 2015

The UK government announced its intention to close all unabated coal-fired power stations by 2025 and restrict their usage from 2023 to meet the challenge of climate change. Drax aims to end its reliance on coal even quicker. Drax CEO Dorothy Thompson has talked about the possibility, given the right support, to have all coal units taken off the Drax system by 2020, if not before.

25th November 2015

The UK government cancelled its £1bn competition for CCS technology.

18th December 2015

On this day the last large scale deep coal mine in Great Britain – Kellingley in North Yorkshire – closed. UK producers were struggling to compete with lower priced, lower nitrogen oxides (NOx) emitting coal from oversees.

1st January 2016

The Industrial Emissions Directive is enforced in the UK and the rest of the European Union, putting stricter limits on the amount of NOx emitted into the atmosphere. From this point on coal power stations can either limit their availability to generate electricity or invest to adapt their boilers and use emissions abatement technologies.

May 2016

Great Britain saw its first day generating electricity without using any coal since the opening of the first UK power station in 1882.

September 2016

Drax and other energy companies write to the UK government in support of maintaining, rather than scrapping, the Carbon Price Floor.

April 2017

The first coal-free 24-hour period on Great Britain’s electricity system since 1882.

April 2018

UK government minister Claire Perry announced Drax had joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance, just three days after Great Britain’s fourth 24 hours free from the carbon-intensive fuel.

May 2019

A new coal-free record for Britain’s electricity system of 8 days, 1 hour and 25 minutes.

Present day

Drax Power Station is Europe’s largest decarbonisation project. Four of its six electricity generation units now run exclusively on biomass – reducing carbon emissions by more than 80%. Currently 75% of its electricity per year is generated using renewable, rather than fossil fuel. The last two coal units could be turned off by 2023.

Hinkley may be an important milestone, but it’s no silver bullet to the UK’s energy challenges

In September, the Prime Minister gave the go-ahead for the construction of two new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset, setting in motion the process for what could be the biggest and most expensive nuclear power station ever built.

While this monumental decision will provide some long overdue clarity for Britain’s energy sector, it has dangerously diverted the attention from a far bigger energy challenge facing the UK – replacing the contribution currently made by coal.

In November last year the Government made a commitment that the UK must stop generating power from coal by 2025. For the sake of future generations, this was the right decision to take – coal is, after all, a fossil fuel of the past that’s damaging the environment. However, it still provides up to one fifth of the UK’s electricity, and plugging that gap will be far from easy. Doing so in a way that allows the country to meet its carbon targets while supporting technologies that will deliver a modern energy system fit for the 21st century only adds to this challenge.

Hinkley Point C will play an important role in the future energy mix, but let’s be clear – it’s no silver bullet.

When finally complete, Hinkley Point C is expected to provide seven percent of the UK’s electricity – less than a third of what is needed to replace coal. What’s more, this new generation isn’t even expected to come ‘on grid’ much before 2030, by which point all but one of the UK’s operating nuclear reactors, which provide around 20% of the UK’s current needs, are scheduled to close.

In short, Hinkley will be replacing lost nuclear capacity, and nowhere near all of it, rather than providing the ‘new’ energy we desperately need to plug the gap the end of coal will create. This raises the question – what can replace outgoing coal in the necessary timescale?

While we have seen a huge and welcome expansion in renewable sources of generation like wind and solar in the UK, they are intermittent so cannot fill the void alone; they still need to be supported by a constant supply of electricity that can be flexed up and down when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine – a regular scenario on these shores.

Gas and nuclear will form part of the solution, but as we’ve seen with Hinkley, planning, funding and building new power stations can be a long and costly process – it took over a decade to reach the decision on Hinkley Point. Gas fired power stations can be up and running far quicker, but obviously planning and approval are still required, and only a handful have been built in the last 10 years.

Alternative technologies – like small modular nuclear reactors and electricity storage – held in some quarters as the answer, certainly hold potential. However, the reality is they aren’t yet fit for purpose at scale and will need much more research and development and in some cases regulatory approval, before they become viable.

Dorothy Thompson

Dorothy Thompson, CEO, Drax Group

Time, unfortunately, is not a luxury we have. This year alone, more than six gigawatts (GW) of coal power generation could come off grid – almost twice the generating capacity of Hinkley Point. Every day lost adds to the cost and complexity of addressing the challenge we face – making a solution less likely.

A recognised, cost-effective renewable option does exist though, but it is often unmentioned in the debate – it’s called biomass.

Using the latest technology at Drax Power Station we have upgraded half of the coal facilities to generate electricity using sustainable compressed wood pellets instead of coal. Since this re-uses existing coal infrastructure, it’s quicker and more efficient than building new power stations, while also providing a reliable and flexible flow of electricity that can help the UK meet its carbon targets. The compressed wood pellets we use, for example, perform in much the same way as coal but deliver a more than 80% CO2 saving.

This solution is proven and ready to go. Already Drax’s facility is powering more than three million homes and delivering 20% of the UK’s renewable electricity, making it the biggest single site renewable generator in the country. Drax can go further though, with the right government support and a level-playing field, delivered via technology-neutral auctions for energy contracts.

With all six Drax generation units converted plus Lynemouth power station – which already has that future secured – and one or two other, smaller biomass power stations, around 10% of the UK’s electricity could be generated using this technology well before 2025.

Finding the right mix of power generation will not be easy, but it is important to make every effort to get it right.

Like Hinkley Point C, biomass is no silver bullet, but it is ideally placed to play an even greater role in helping the country transform to a low-carbon future.

A solution for cheaper, cleaner power

Senior couple checking their bills

Britain has some big energy targets ahead of it – namely an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 compared to 1990 figures. A renewable energy future is not an optimistic target, it is a necessary one.

But for this picture to also be a practical one it needs to be affordable. A study from NERA and Imperial College London, commissioned by Drax, suggests there are ways for renewable technology to be cheaper than it currently is.

In fact, in one scenario they looked at, there could be savings to the tune of £2.2 billion.

Incentivising decarbonisation

It’s a positive and necessary support mechanism. However, some renewable technologies, like compressed wood pellets, a form of biomass, are excluded from participating in upcoming the auctions scheduled between 2017-20. Why is this?

Missing the bigger picture

Currently, CfD support is based on how much a particular type of electricity costs combined with how much it takes to build and maintain the facility used to generate it. This figure is what’s called the ‘levelised cost of energy’ (LCOE). The spanner in the works comes in that not all costs are considered in making this judgement.

Powering a country requires more than just a power source. We need ancillary services like backup power to get the country back on the rails in the event of large-scale blackouts, and voltage control to ensure electronic devices continue to work and that power can move around the network. The costs associated with these services – system integration costs (SICs) – are excluded from the CfD equation.

Sources like wind and solar, being intermittent, can’t offer most of these on-demand ancillary services but we still need them to play a part in the UK’s energy supply. Biomass facilities can provide a number of these itself, meaning it actually has a negative SIC cost.

However, in the current pricing system – ignoring these associated costs – biomass is considered more expensive than onshore wind and solar. With the high SIC costs for wind and solar included, biomass is in fact the cheapest option.

Finding the right mix

This is not to say that solar and wind are not an integral part of a more renewable future. A truly flexible low carbon, high voltage electricity grid should be a mix of elements. Current rules do not look at the full picture, and are ruling out important alternatives, but there are possible solutions. One could be unifying the markets.

There are four markets that feed into the UK’s electricity supply and there’s little transparency or cohesion between them. This leads to inefficiencies.

Jens Price Wolf, Regulations and Market Director at Drax, explains: “Solar is the cheapest renewable, diesel is the cheapest option in the capacity market and gas will be the cheapest for energy production.”

By considering each market as separate you end up buying the cheapest solution for that individual purpose rather than considering its performance across all. This misses out solutions that can benefit the whole system.

“Biomass might be the second cheapest option in each field,” says Wolf. “So supporting investment to upgrade existing coal power stations with biomass technology satisfies multiple needs and leads to it being ultimately cheaper than the old mix.”

A single market approach that treats all technologies and generation methods in the same way could lead to significant cost savings, and those savings could be passed on to bill payers in households and businesses.

While this could be a longer-term solution, there are ways short-term actions that can make a difference. If the government were to include biomass in the mix for the next round of CfD auctions it could bring about savings of over £2 billion over the next 15 years, or a £85 saving per household over the same period. And, it would do this while ensuring the grid remains adaptable without sacrificing emissions targets.