Tag: sustainability

Cruachan Power Station: Protecting biodiversity while generating power

Key points:

  • The Scottish Highlands are home to a wide variety of landscapes, with a wealth of biodiversity that must be preserved.
  • Cruachan pumped storage hydro station sits within Ben Cruachan and has operated for nearly 60-years without damaging wildlife.
  • Regular surveys and reporting allow Drax to understand the health of different fauna and species over time.
  • It’s promising that even species of bird and insects that are declining in other parts of the UK are regularly spotted around Cruachan.
  • The expansion of the power station has required and will continue to need careful assessment of the area’s biodiversity to minimise any impact the project could cause.

The Scottish Highlands are home to some of the UK’s most stunning natural wonders. From dramatic plunging lochs to the craggy, ice capped Munros, the varied landscape holds some of the most biodiverse areas in the UK. The region’s fauna ranges from red deer to golden eagles, while its flora includes the ancient oak and moss-covered forests that make up the ‘temperate rainforest’ of the Atlantic coast.

Preserving these landscapes and the life that thrives in them is crucial to both the environment and economy of the region. It’s the job of Roddy Davies, Health, Safety, and Environmental Advisor at Drax’s Cruachan Power Station to ensure operations at the site do not damage the natural environment.

“This is a very biodiverse, rich environment. There are a lot of different species, a large variety of natural habitats and plant life,” says Davies. “It’s good that we can say we’ve operated here for nearly 60 years, and all of that is still there. It’s testament that we don’t have a demonstrable negative effect on the wildlife that lives around us.”

Source: Blue Leaf Nature

Energy storage inside a mountain

The pumped storage hydro station sits a kilometre inside Ben Cruachan, a Munro peak in the Western Highland region of Argyll and Bute. It’s not an area you would normally associate with power generation, but it’s perfect for pumped storage hydro. The site has two bodies of water at differing elevations, Loch Awe at the bottom and a reservoir at the top allowing Cruachan to generate power when it’s needed, as well as absorb electricity when there is an excess on the grid by pumping water back up the mountain. Storing it until power is needed and helping to keep the grid balanced.

The subterranean nature of the power station means the massive machinery, including the four reversible turbines, and the heat and noise they generate, is hidden underground.

Features on the surface are limited to a few buildings by the entrance tunnel at the banks of Loch Awe, and the dam which contains the upper reservoir on the slopes of Ben Cruachan, as well as several pylons and cables transporting electricity. Even the 316-metre buttress dam takes the landscape into account.

“When Cruachan was built in the ’50s and ’60s, the visual impact of it was very much in the minds of the people who built it and the authorities who approved it. The dam is almost impossible to see from a public place,” explains Davies. “Our presence on the surface is very limited. All the busy goings-on are underground. There’s lots of noise underground, but it doesn’t travel outside.”

Ensuring that the area surrounding Drax’s operation continues to function without damaging the surrounding environment is an ongoing process. Davies deploys annual biodiversity surveys and reporting that gives Drax over a decade of information and analysis to help identify trends.

The wildlife of Ben Cruachan

The Cruachan Power Station Biodiversity Survey for 2021 is the 11th completed by Blue Leaf Nature, a biodiversity service provider. The comprehensive report highlights the incredible diversity of fauna surrounding Cruachan, some of which are declining in other parts of the country.

While the majestic red stags found in other parts of the Highlands are extremely uncommon around Cruachan, 2021 was a particularly exciting year for other types of large mammals. Pine martens – a cat-sized relative of the weasel – are relatively common, appearing alongside red squirrels, red foxes, and otters. Badgers were also added to the site’s list of species for the first time.

Source: Blue Leaf Nature

Mammals, however, are exceeded by the range of birds found around Cruachan, with 53 different species spotted in 2021. Of these, 17 species appear on the Birds of Conservation Concern Five’s red list, the highest threat status to the UK’s bird population, including the Ring Ouzel, Yellowhammer and Tree Pipet. A further 27 appear on the Regional International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Additionally, six of the spotted species are considered endangered (including Herring Gull and Northern Wheatear) and 11 vulnerable by the IUCN.

Sightings of these threatened species around Cruachan come despite particularly unfavourable weather in 2021. One of the driest Aprils on record followed by an exceptionally wet May disrupted the bird breeding season. This in turn resulted in a difficult nesting season, exacerbated by food shortages due to the weather’s effect on insect life.

In the report’s survey of invertebrates, 150 different species were recorded in 2021, down from 170 in 2018. However, it’s promising that among Cruachan’s creepy-crawlies are many that are in decline elsewhere in the UK, with the numbers of some important insect types are increasing. Dragonfly and damselfly species, for example, increased from five in the previous survey to nine in 2021.

Moths and butterflies are particularly important to monitor, as Davies explains: “they’re a very strong indicator species for the health and quality of an ecosystem. They’re also very sensitive to climatic changes and  react quickly to temperature change.”

Source: Blue Leaf Nature

In 2021, 78 moth species were recorded around Cruachan, including one of Butterfly Conservation’s noted priority species (Yellow-ringed carpet), as well as six species that feature on IUCN’s red or amber lists. There were 11 butterfly species recorded in 2021, including four priority species, as well as two newly spotted species: the Small Copper and the Chequered Skipper.

That species in decline around the country are increasingly thriving at Cruachan is further testament to the power station’s lack of disruption to the environment. And as the UK’s electricity system continues to evolve, and Cruachan power station with it, closely observing the surrounding environment and its inhabitants will become even more important.

Expanding Cruachan while preserving nature

While Cruachan first started generating and storing power in the 1960s, its capabilities are becoming ever more critical as the national grid decarbonises and power generation becomes increasingly decentralised. This is why Drax is undertaking an ambitious project to expand Cruachan.

Cruachan 2 would add a further 600 MW of generation capacity to the plant for a total of 1.04 GW of power. By providing stability services to the grid, the expansion could enable an additional 300-gigawatt hours of renewable power to come online.

Source: Blue Leaf Nature

The project is epic in scale. New underground tunnels and subterranean caverns will house the reversible pump-turbines and will be carved out of the mountain, vastly increasing the size of the power station. But as with any activity in such a landscape, careful planning is essential. Detailed surveys and assessments of the area are a key requirement for planning approval.

“We need to acknowledge what’s here and show that we understand what surveys have found,” says Davies. “Then we have to present our proposals for how we will protect them and mitigate any potential disturbance.”

An advantage of pumped storage hydro is that much of the intensive excavating and construction work will take place underground, with little disturbance on the surface. Cruachan 2 has the added benefit of utilising Cruachan’s existing infrastructure. For example, it would not require flooding a valley to create a new upper reservoir.

Ultimately, Cruachan’s half century-plus of operation has not damaged or degraded the biodiversity of the Western Highlands landscape. And Davies is keen to ensure that legacy is preserved: “As a company, it’s not just something we have to do; we have a moral responsibility to be a responsible operator and look after what’s around us.”

View the Cruachan Power Station Biodiversity Survey 2021 here and find out more about Green Tourism at Cruachan here

What is the carbon cycle?

What is the carbon cycle?

All living things contain carbon and the carbon cycle is the process through which the element continuously moves from one place in nature to another. Most carbon is stored in rock and sediment, but it’s also found in soil, oceans, and the atmosphere, and is produced by all living organisms – including plants, animals, and humans.

Carbon atoms move between the atmosphere and various storage locations, also known as reservoirs, on Earth. They do this through mechanisms such as photosynthesis, the decomposition and respiration of living organisms, and the eruption of volcanoes.

As our planet is a closed system, the overall amount of carbon doesn’t change. However, the level of carbon stored in a particular reservoir, including the atmosphere, can and does change, as does the speed at which carbon moves from one reservoir to another.

What is the role of photosynthesis in the carbon cycle?

Carbon exists in many different forms, including the colourless and odourless gas that is carbon dioxide (CO2). During photosynthesis, plants absorb light energy from the sun, water through their roots, and CO2 from the air – converting them into oxygen and glucose.

The oxygen is then released back into the air, while the carbon is stored in glucose, and used for energy by the plant to feed its stem, branches, leaves, and roots. Plants also release CO2 into the atmosphere through respiration.

Animals – including humans – who consume plants similarly digest the glucose for energy purposes. The cells in the human body then break down the glucose, with CO2 emitted as a waste product as we exhale.

CO2 is also produced when plants and animals die and are broken down by organisms such as fungi and bacteria during decomposition.

What is the fast carbon cycle?

The natural process of plants and animals releasing CO2 into the atmosphere through respiration and decomposition and plants absorbing it via photosynthesis is known as the biogenic carbon cycle. Biogenic refers to something that is produced by or originates from a living organism. This cycle also incorporates CO2 absorbed and released by the world’s oceans.

The biogenic carbon cycle is also called the “fast” carbon cycle, as the carbon that circulates through it does so comparatively quickly. There are nevertheless substantial variations within this faster cycle. Reservoir turnover times – a measure of how long the carbon remains in one location – range from years for the atmosphere to decades through to millennia for major carbon sinks on land and in the ocean.

What is the slow carbon cycle?

In some circumstances, plant and animal remains can become fossilised. This process, which takes millions of years, eventually leads to the formation of fossil fuels. Coal comes from the remains of plants that have been transformed into sedimentary rock. And we get crude oil and natural gas from plankton that once fell to the ocean floor and was, over time, buried by sediment.

The rocks and sedimentary layers where coal, crude oil, and natural gas are found form part of what is known as the geological or slow carbon cycle. From this cycle, carbon is returned to the atmosphere through, for example, volcanic eruptions and the weathering of rocks. In the slow carbon cycle, reservoir turnover times exceed 10,000 years and can stretch to millions of years.

How do humans impact the carbon cycle?

Left to its own devices, Earth can keep CO2 levels balanced, with similar amounts of CO2 released into and absorbed from the air. Carbon stored in rocks and sediment would slowly be emitted over a long period of time. However, human activity has upset this natural equilibrium.

Burning fossil fuel releases carbon that’s been sequestered in geological formations for millions of years, transferring it from the slow to the fast (biogenic) carbon cycle. This influx of fossil carbon leads to excessive levels of atmospheric CO2, that the biogenic carbon cycle can’t cope with.

As a greenhouse gas that traps heat from the sun between the Earth and its atmosphere, CO2 is essential to human existence. Without CO2 and other greenhouse gases, the planet could become too cold to sustain life.

However, the drastic increase in atmospheric CO2 due to human activity means that too much heat is now retained between Earth and the atmosphere. This has led to a continued rise in the average global temperature, a development that is part of climate change.

Where does biomass fit into the carbon cycle?

One way to help reduce fossil carbon is to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, including sustainably sourced biomass. Feedstock for biomass energy includes plant material, wood, and forest residue – organic matter that absorbs CO2 as part of the biogenic carbon cycle. When the biomass is combusted in energy or electricity generation, the biogenic carbon stored in the organic matter is released back into the atmosphere as CO2.

This is distinctly different from the fossil carbon released by oil, gas, and coal. The addition of carbon capture and storage to bioenergy – creating BECCS – means the biogenic carbon absorbed by the organic matter is captured and sequestered, permanently removing it from the atmosphere. By capturing CO2 and transporting it to geological formations – such as porous rocks – for permanent storage, BECCS moves CO2 from the fast to the slow carbon cycle.

This is the opposite of burning fossil fuels, which takes carbon out of geological formations (the slow carbon cycle) and emits it into the atmosphere (the fast carbon cycle). Because BECCS removes more carbon than it emits, it delivers negative emissions.

Fast facts

  • According to a 2019 study, human activity including the burning of fossil fuels releases between 40 and 100 times more carbon every year than all volcanic eruptions around the world.
  • In March 2021, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii reported that average CO2 in the atmosphere for that month was 14 parts per million. This was 50% higher than at the time of the Industrial Revolution (1750-1800).
  • There is an estimated 85 billion gigatonne (Gt) of carbon stored below the surface of the Earth. In comparison, just 43,500 Gt is stored on land, in oceans, and in the atmosphere.
  • Forests around the world are vital carbon sinks, absorbing around 7.6 million tonnes of CO2 every year.

Go deeper

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.

The jobs needed to build a net zero energy future

Many components are needed to tackle climate change and reach environmental milestones such as meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. One of those components is the right workforce, large enough and with the necessary skills and knowledge to take on the green energy jobs of a low-carbon future. In 2020, the renewable energy sector employed 11.5 million people around the world, but as the industry continues to expand that workforce will only grow.

Last year, a National Grid report found that in the UK alone, 120,000 jobs will need to be filled in the low-carbon energy sector by 2030, to meet the country’s climate objectives. That figure is expected to rise to 400,000 by 2050.  The UK energy sector as a whole currently supports 738,000 jobs and much of this workforce already has the skills needed for a low carbon society . Others can be reskilled and retrained, helping to bolster the future workforce by supporting employees through the green transition.

At a global level energy sector jobs are expected to increase from 18 million to 26 million by 2050. Jobs that will span the full energy spectrum; from researching and advising on low-carbon solutions to installing and implementing them.

Here are some of the roles that will be key to the low-carbon energy transformation:

A wind farm under construction off the English coast

Wind turbine technicians

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), wind power is this year set for a 17% increase in global energy generation compared to 2020, the biggest increase of any renewable power source. The IEA also forecasts that wind power will need to grow tenfold by 2050 if the world is to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. It’s not surprising, therefore, that wind turbine technicians – the professionals who install, inspect, maintain, and repair wind turbines – are in high demand. In the US, wind turbine technician is the fastest-growing job in the country – with 68% growth projected over the 2020-2030 period – to give just one example.

In the UK, many wind turbine technicians have a background in engineering or experience from the wider energy sector. Although there are wind turbine technician and maintenance courses available, they are not a prerequisite, and many employers offer apprenticeships and on-the-job training – smoothing the path for energy professionals to transition into the role.

Solar panel installers

Today, solar photovoltaic (solar PV) is the biggest global employer in renewable energy, accounting for 3.8 million jobs. The IEA also reported a 23% uptick in solar PV installations around the world in 2020. In the UK, there are currently 13.2 gigawatts (GW) of installed solar power capacity. Trade association Solar Energy UK predicts this will need to rise to at least 40 GW by 2030 if the UK is to succeed in becoming a net zero economy by 2050. The trade association believes this could see the creation of 13,000 new solar energy jobs.

Solar panel installers – who carry out the important job of installing and maintaining solar PV – are essential to a low-carbon future. Many solar panel installers in the UK come from a background in electrical installation or have transitioned from engineering. While there are training courses specifically designed for solar panel installers, they are not a necessity, particularly if you already have on-the-job experience in a relevant sector. This makes a move to becoming a solar panel installer relatively easy for someone already working in energy or with a mind for engineering.

Energy consultants

Businesses of all kinds must play a role in the transition to net zero. Organisations must be able to manage their energy use and begin switching to renewable sources. As professionals who advise companies on this process, renewable energy consultants are a key part of the green energy workforce. Aspects of the job include identifying how organisations use their electric assets and helping businesses optimise those assets to build responsiveness and flexibility into energy-intensive operations. The core responsibilities of a renewable energy consultant are to reduce a company’s environmental impact while helping the business reduce energy costs and identifying opportunities.

Carbon accountants

A growing number of businesses are setting targets for reducing their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But that’s only possible if you can first determine what your GHG emissions are and where they come from, which is where the relatively young field of carbon accounting comes in. Through what is known as physical carbon accounting, companies can assess the emissions their activities generate, and where in the supply chain the emissions are occurring. This allows businesses to implement more accurate actions and be realistic in their timelines for reducing emissions.

On a wider scale, accurate carbon accounting will be crucial in certifying emissions reductions or abatement, as well as in the distribution of carbon credits or penalties as whole economies push towards net zero.

Battery technology researchers

Energy storage is essential to a low-carbon energy future.  The ability to store and release energy from intermittent sources such as wind and solar will be crucial in meeting demand and balancing a renewables-driven grid. While many forms of energy storage already exist, developing electric batteries that can be deployed at scale is still a comparatively new and expanding area.

Global patenting activities in the field of batteries and other electricity storage increased at an annual rate of 14% –  four times faster than the average for technology – between 2005 and 2018. However, it’s estimated that to meet climate objectives, the world will need nearly 10,000 GW hours of battery and other electricity storage by 2040. This is 50 times the current level and research and innovation will be crucial to delivering bigger and more efficient batteries.

Farmers and foresters

How we use and manage land will be important in lowering carbon emissions and creating a sustainable future for people and the planet. Crops like corn, sugarcane, and soybean can serve as feedstock for biofuel and bioenergy, and farming by-products such as cow manure can be used in the development of biofuel.

Techniques adopted in the agricultural sector will also be important in optimising soil sequestration capabilities while ensuring it is nutrient-rich enough to grow food. These techniques include the use of biochar, a solid form of charcoal produced by heating biomass without oxygen. Research indicates that biochar can sequester carbon in the soil for centuries or longer. It also helps soil retain water and could contribute to reducing the use of fertilisers by making the soil more nutrient-dense.

Forests, meanwhile, provide material for industries like construction, the by-products from which can serve as feedstock for woody biomass, primarily in the shape of low-grade wood that would otherwise remain unused. Sustainably managed forests, such as those from which Drax sources its biomass, have two-fold importance. They both enable woody biomass for bioenergy and ensure CO2 is removed from the atmosphere as part of the natural carbon cycle.

Biofuel engineers and scientists

Farmers and foresters provide feedstock for biofuels, but it’s biofuel scientists and engineers who research, develop, and enhance them, opening the door to alternative fuels for vehicles, heating, and even jet engines.

According to the IEA, production of biofuel that can be used as an alternative to fossil fuels in the transport sector grew 6% in 2019. However, the organisation forecasts that production will need to increase 10% annually until 2030to be in line with Paris Agreement climate targets.

Scientific innovations that can help boost the production of biofuel around the world, therefore, continues to be vital. As is the work of biofuel engineers who assess and improve existing biofuel systems and develop new ones that can replace fossil fuels like petrol and diesel.

The wealth of knowledge around fuels in the oil and gas industries means there is ample opportunity for scientists and engineers who work with fossil fuels to bring their skills to crucial low-carbon roles.

Geologists

The overriding goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit global warming to “well below” 2 and preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. This is an objective the IEA has said will be “virtually impossible” to fulfil without carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. CCS entails capturing CO2 and transporting it for safe and permanent underground storage in geological formations such as depleted oil and gas fields, coal seams, and saline aquifers.

According to the Global CCS Institute, the world will need a 100-fold increase on the 27 CCS project currently in operation by 2050. Knowledge and research into rock types, formations, and reactivity will be important in helping identify sites deep underground that can be used for safe, permanent carbon storage, and sequestration. Skills and expertise gained in the oil and gas industries will allow professionals in these sectors to make the switch from careers in fossil fuel to roles that help power a net zero economy.  

Employees working at Drax Power Station

Chemists

The role of chemists is also vital to decarbonisation. Knowledge and research around CO2 is a potent force in the effort to reduce and remove it from the atmosphere.

Technologies like CCS, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECSS) and direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS) are based around such research. Carbon capture processes are chemical reactions between emissions streams and solvents, often based on amines, and GHGs. Understanding and controlling these processes makes chemistry a key component of delivering carbon capture at the scale needed to help meet climate targets.

Chemists’ role in decarbonisation is far from limited to carbon capture methods. From battery technology to reforestation, chemists’ understanding of the elements can help drive action against climate change.

Bringing together disciplines

Tackling climate change on the scale needed to achieve the aims of the Paris Agreement depends on collaboration between industries, countries, and disciplines. Decarbonisation projects such as the UK’s East Coast Cluster, which encompasses both Zero Carbon Humber and Net Zero Teesside, fuse engineering and construction jobs with scientific and academic work.

Zero Carbon Humber, which brings together 12 organisations, including Drax, is expected to create as many as 47,800 jobs in the region by 2027. Among these are construction sector jobs for welders, pipefitters, machine installers and technicians. In addition, indirect jobs are predicted to be created across supply chains, from material manufacturing to the logistics of supporting a workforce.

Meeting climate challenges and delivering projects on the scale of Zero Carbon Humber, depends on creating an energy workforce that combines the knowledge of the past with the green energy skills of the future.

Drax’s apprenticeships have readied workers for the energy sector for decades, and will continue to do so as we build a low-carbon future. Options include four-year technical apprenticeships in mechanical, electrical, and control and instrumentation engineering. Getting on-the-job training and practical experience, apprentices receive a nationally recognised qualification, such as a BTEC or an NVQ Level 3, at the end of the programme.

Apprentices at Drax Power Station [2021]

The workforce needed to make low carbon societies a reality will be a diverse one – stretching from apprentices to experienced professionals with a background in traditional or renewable energy. It will also span every aspect of the renewable energy field, from the chemists and biofuel scientists who develop key technologies to the solar panel installers and wind turbine technicians who fit and maintain the necessary equipment.

The skills needed to take on these roles are already plentiful in the UK and around the world. Overcoming challenges on the road to net zero requires refocussing these existing talents, skills, and careers towards a new goal.

Transporting carbon – How to safely move CO2 from the atmosphere to permanent storage

Key points

  • Carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS) offers a unique opportunity to capture and store the UK’s emissions and help the country reach its climate goals.
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) can be stored in geological reservoirs under the North Sea, but getting it from source to storage will need a large and safe CO2 transportation network.
  • The UK already has a long history and extensive infrastructure for transporting gas across the country for heating, cooking and power generation.
  • This provides a foundation of knowledge and experience on which to build a network to transport CO2.

Across the length of the UK is an underground network similar to the trainlines and roadways that crisscross the country above ground. These pipes aren’t carrying water or broadband, but gas. Natural gas is a cornerstone of the UK’s energy, powering our heating, cooking and electricity generation. But like the country’s energy network, the need to reduce emissions and meet the UK’s target of net zero emissions by 2050 is set to change this.

Today, this network of pipes takes fossil fuels from underground formations deep beneath the North Sea bed and distributes it around the UK to be burned – producing emissions. A similar system of subterranean pipelines could soon be used to transport captured emissions, such as CO2, away from industrial clusters around factories and power stations, locking them away underground, permanently and safely.

Conveyer system at Drax Power Station transporting sustainable wood pellets

The rise of CCUS technology is the driving force behind CO2 transportation. The process captures CO2 from emissions sources and transports it to sites such as deep natural storage enclaves far below the seabed.

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) takes this a step further. BECCS uses sustainable biomass to generate renewable electricity. This biomass comes from sources, such as forest residues or agricultural waste products, which remove CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow. Atmospheric COreleased in the combustion of the biomass is then captured, transported and stored at sites such as deep geological formations.

Across the whole BECCS process, CO2 has gone from the atmosphere to being permanently trapped away, reducing the overall amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and delivering what’s known as negative emissions.

BECCS is a crucial technology for reaching net zero emissions by 2050, but how can we ensure the CO2 is safely transported from the emissions source to storage sites?

Moving gases around safely

Moving gases of any kind through pipelines is all about pressure. Gases always travel from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure. By compressing gas to a high pressure, it allows it to flow to other locations. Compressor stations along a gas pipeline help to maintain right the pressure, while metering stations check pressure levels and look out for leaks.

The greater the pressure difference between two points, the faster gases will flow. In the case of CO2, high absolute pressures also cause it to become what’s known as a supercritical fluid. This means it has the density of a liquid but the viscosity of a gas, properties that make it easier to transport through long pipelines.

Since 1967 when North Sea natural gas first arrived in the UK, our natural gas transmission network has expanded considerably, and is today made up of almost 290,000 km of pipelines that run the length of the country. Along with that physical footprint is an extensive knowledge pool and a set of well-enforced regulations monitoring their operation.

While moving gas through pipelines across the country is by no means new, the idea of CO2 transportation through pipelines is. But it’s not unprecedented, as it has been carried out since the 1980s at scale across North America. In contrast to BECCS, which would transport CO2 to remove and permanently store emissions, most of the CO2 transport in action today is used in oil enhanced recovery – a means of ejecting more fossil fuels from depleted oil wells. However, the principle of moving CO2 safely over long distances remains relevant – there are already 2,500 km of pipelines in the western USA, transporting as much as 50 million tonnes of CO2 a year.

“People might worry when there is something new moving around in the country, but the science community doesn’t have sleepless nights about CO2 pipelines,” says Dr Hannah Chalmers, from the University of Edinburgh. “It wouldn’t explode, like natural gas might, that’s just not how the molecule works. If it’s properly installed and regulated, there’s no reason to be concerned.”

CO2 is not the same as the methane-based natural gas that people use every day. For one, it is a much more stable, inert molecule, meaning it does not react with other molecules, and it doesn’t fuel explosions in the same way natural gas would.

CO2 has long been understood and there is a growing body of research around transporting and storing it in a safe efficient way that can make CCUS and BECCS a catalyst in reducing the UK’s emissions and future-proofing its economy.

Working with CO2 across the UK

Working with CO2 while it is in a supercritical state mean it’s not just easier to move around pipes. In this state CO2 can also be loaded onto ships in very large quantities, as well as injected into rock formations that once trapped oil and gas, or salt-dense water reserves.

Decades of extracting fossil fuels from the North Sea means it is extensively mapped and the rock formations well understood. The expansive layers of porous sandstone that lie beneath offer the UK an estimated 70 billion tonnes of potential CO2 storage space – something a number of industrial clusters on the UK’s east coast are exploring as part of their plans to decarbonise.

Source: CCS Image Library, Global CCS Institute [Click to view/download]

Drax is already running a pilot BECCS project at its power station in North Yorkshire. As part of the Zero Carbon Humber partnership and wider East Coast Cluster, Drax is involved in the development of large scale carbon storage capabilities in the North Sea that can serve the Humber and Teesside industrial clusters. As Drax moves towards its goal of becoming carbon negative by 2030, transporting CO2 safely at scale is a key focus.

“Much of the research and engineering has already been done around the infrastructure side of the project,” explains Richard Gwilliam, Head of Cluster Development at Drax. “Transporting and storing CO2 captured by the BECCS projects is well understood thanks to extensive engineering investigations already completed both onshore and offshore in the Yorkshire region.”

This also includes research and development into pipes of different materials, carrying CO2 at different pressures and temperatures, as well as fracture and safety testing.

The potential for the UK to build on this foundation and progress towards net zero is considerable. However, for it to fully manifest it will need commitment at a national level to building the additional infrastructure required. The results of such a commitment could be far reaching.

In the Humber alone, 20% of economic value comes from energy and emissions-intensive industries, and as many as 360,000 jobs are supported by industries like refining, petrochemicals, manufacturing and power generation. Putting in place the technology and infrastructure to capture, transport and store emissions will protect those industries while helping the UK reach its climate goals.

It’s just a matter of putting the pipes in place.

Go deeper: How do you store CO2 and what happens to it when you do?

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

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

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

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

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

Key direct air capture facts

How does DACS work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

DACS fast facts

What role can DACS play in decarbonisation?

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

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

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

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

Go deeper

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

The apprenticeships of the future

In brief

  • Apprenticeships are widely available at Drax, not just in engineering

  • Hear what our existing apprentices think about the opportunities they’ve taken

  • Discover where to find out more: could you be the next Drax apprentice?

Apprenticeships are changing – once mainly the domain of school leavers entering a trade, they are now a possibility for people at many different career stages, in countless industries.

At Drax, we offer a wide range of apprenticeships across a variety of business areas, from engineering to data science. The scheme covers costs to individuals without affecting employee salaries or benefits, whilst providing sufficient support and protected study time.

“Take the opportunity! We’re very lucky to have the chance to complete apprenticeships while working.”

— Beka Mantle, apprentice

By undertaking the apprenticeship, people can learn a new set of skills to improve their knowledge and expertise, boost their career opportunities and gain invaluable experience.

What is an apprenticeship?

An apprenticeship is made up of learning with a training provider and practical experience on the job.

Apprenticeships can benefit Drax by attracting new talent while also developing existing colleagues and future-proofing our workforce to help achieve our ambition to become carbon negative by 2030.

Apprentice Q&A

The following insights from Drax employees highlight the opportunities that apprenticeships can give them and what they have learnt so far.

Joe Clements

Job title: Technical Engineering Trainee

Apprenticeship: Mechanical Engineering Pathway Continuation

Q: What are the benefits of an apprenticeship?

A: It’s put me in positions that I might not have found myself in before, forcing me to learn fast and adapt. It’s also benefiting Drax as I’m constantly learning and developing within my team. On completion, I should be ready to go straight into an engineering role.

Q: What are the challenges?

A: Balancing your work and study, especially as you grow into the role and take on more tasks. However, you’re guaranteed learning hours on a weekly basis.

Lois Cheatle

Job title: Finance Graduate

Apprenticeship: Accountancy and Taxation

Q: Why did you want to do an apprenticeship?

A: Having graduated from university and taken a year out, I wanted to further improve on the skills I’d learnt. An apprenticeship has allowed me to develop these skills both from learning on the job and having technical support from my training provider as I worked my way through my accountancy qualification.

It’s also given me the opportunity to develop soft skills such as communication and building relationships, which is part of the professional development side of the apprenticeship.

Alex Hegarty

Job title: Data Science Analyst

Apprenticeship: Data Science

Q: How was your apprenticeship application process?

A: It was fairly straightforward – Louisa Russell (Early Careers Manager at Drax) helped me with my enrolment. To qualify for the course, I had to complete a quiz to prove I had basic proficiency in programming.

Q: What’s the best thing about doing an apprenticeship?

A: Having experts with extensive knowledge of the subject who you can pester with questions.

Beka Mantle

Job title: 4E Business Lead

Apprenticeship: Improvement Specialist

Q: Have you felt supported? 

A: Very. My line manager is always checking in to see how I’m getting on and offering support, and I have catch ups with the Early Careers team. I also meet my apprenticeship tutor at least bi-weekly, and he’s always there to answer any questions and talk things through. I’m also lucky to have someone else on my team who’s working through the same apprenticeship – it’s great when we need to practise something or bounce ideas off each other.

Q: What would you say to anyone thinking of doing an apprenticeship? 

A: Take the opportunity! We’re very lucky to have the chance to complete apprenticeships while working, and I’m grateful to have the support of so many people around me while I’m on this journey.

Chris Hughes

Job Title: Seconded to Supplier Relationship Manager

Apprenticeship: Regulatory Compliance

Q: What’s the best thing about it?

A: Making new friends from different sectors, such as councils and environmental health, and gaining an insight into their working lives and how compliance plays its part. It’s also motivating to get continuous positive feedback about my strong coursework and presentations.

Jason Reeve

Job title: Collections Manager – line manager to Chris Hughes and Jessica Leason, Supplier Relationship Manager

Q: How do you manage study commitments?

A: I’ve made sure that both Chris and Jessica have had dedicated study time blocked out in their diaries. In our 1:1s, we’ve discussed progress and looked at the assessment criteria to make sure they’ve been involved with projects giving them valuable experience to support their apprenticeship.

Q: Why is it important to support colleagues doing apprenticeships?

A: It’s vital to develop your team – as a manager, a large part of my success is down to the skills and expertise my team brings to the table. Helping Chris and Jess through their apprenticeship has really aided their personal development, knowledge and skills. I soon started seeing the benefit in terms of what they were bringing to the team, their contribution to the department and their own confidence.

Their continued development through the scheme has helped keep their passion alive for their roles and driven their success.

Go deeper

Find out more about the apprenticeships we offer at Drax, as well as our other career opportunities here.