Comment

Energy: Climate talks will put renewables in the spotlight

Dorothy Thompson,Drax CEO

It’s time for the industry to step up and make its case, says Drax Group chief executive Dorothy Thompson.

It’s definitely that time of the year. The days are shorter, the nights longer and the weather’s turning. And that always means two things: one, that the UK’s ability to meet winter electricity needs is under close scrutiny; and two, energy bills are on the minds of households and businesses up and down the country.

"It is at these moments the UK’s renewables sector needs to come forward and be confident about the positive role it can play in meeting the big energy challenges facing the UK." 

It is also this time of year when journalists become more interested in stories about power capacity over the cold, dark months. National Grid recently announced that it was forced to spend millions of pounds to prevent power shortages after it issued a ‘Notice of Inadequate System Margin’ – and many are legitimately asking how the Government plans to keep the lights on and at what cost.

As the questions around possible electricity shortages increase, policy makers are also facing the small matter of negotiating a global deal on climate change at the next UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, now a matter of weeks away.

It is at these moments the UK’s renewables sector needs to come forward and be confident about the positive role it can play in meeting the big energy challenges facing the UK. We need to avoid a situation in which the fossil-fuel revivalists, spurred on by consumer concerns about energy costs, hog the affordable capacity debate. We have a strong argument to make – we just need to make it in the right way.

Advocates for renewable power should always keep the public front of mind and respect what are legitimate concerns about the cost of living. However, it is equally important that those who develop policy – and indeed those who comment on it – understand or are reminded how the renewable energy sector operates and why it exists in the first place. The Paris climate talks are a perfect backdrop against which to do this.  

At the forefront of the Drax Group is the UK’s largest power station which is responsible for generating 7-8% of our electricity. During my time as CEO the business has transformed itself from the UK’s biggest emitter of CO2 to Europe’s largest decarbonisation project. When I am asked about Drax’s role in the energy mix I tell people that the challenge we first sought to meet when we started this journey has barely changed.

The UK needs to keep the lights on, and that requires electricity generation that can respond to the peaks and troughs of consumer and business demand. National Grid’s latest announcement makes this even more pressing. Furthermore, the UK has legal targets to reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent compared with 1990 levels by 2050 and to source 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

It therefore needs to keep the lights on in an environmentally friendly way.

The third element of what has become known as the ‘energy trilemma’ is that we have a duty to deliver the above in the most affordable way possible. It is on this third element that the anti-renewables lobby, drawing on concerns about the cost of living, has had its greatest impact in recent years, flippantly brushing aside the realities of the trilemma.   

Drax is proud that it can offer an answer to the trilemma because of its use of a renewable technology that meets the demands of reliability, sustainability and cost effectiveness. We call it biomass – fuel made with latest compression technology from low value wood and residues sourced from commercial forestry and timber processing operations, primarily in North America and Europe.

Low carbon power via biomass

Drax has been involved with biomass technology for over a decade and through the development of pioneering technology more than half the electricity we produce now comes from biomass. Embracing innovation has been at the heart of our business since the start and it has ensured that we can now generate power using biomass as an efficient coal replacement delivering low carbon, renewable power on demand, whenever it is needed. In cruder terms, biomass doesn’t rely on the sun shining or the wind blowing (although these renewables can and do provide a perfectly complimentary supply of electricity).

"A recent independent study by Frontier Economics showed replacing Drax's three biomass-fired power units with offshore wind would cost the UK an additional £2.5bn - £3.4bn."

Engineering innovation has also allowed us to use the existing power station and distribution network meaning it is one of the cheapest renewable energy sources we have available in the UK.

A recent independent study by Frontier Economics showed replacing Drax's three biomass-fired power units with offshore wind would cost the UK an additional £2.5bn - £3.4bn. The UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change has commissioned a new independent study into ‘full system’ costs – that is, the true end-to-end cost of renewable electricity generation – and the sector eagerly awaits the results.

Finally, the environmental credentials of sustainable biomass are impressive. Drax’s conversion to biomass means our carbon emissions are 86% less compared to coal and we saved our 20 millionth tonne of carbon earlier this year. By the time we have installed the technology to upgrade half of the plant to run on biomass, due to be completed in 2016, we will be saving twelve million tonnes of carbon per year – the equivalent of decarbonising Britain’s entire industrial processes sector, which includes cement, iron and steel production, or taking more than three million cars off our roads.

In the past few years the renewable energy debate has become heated and deeply political. Those renewable energy generators – like Drax – that offer a clear answer to a real problem need to make sure we drag the debate kicking and screaming back to why we are here in the first place: the need for reliable, affordable, low-carbon energy.

As the winter nights draw in and politicians from around the world gather to hammer out a climate change deal, let’s step up and make our case.