UK: Drax power station at 50: From titan of coal to greenest beacon

As Drax Power Station marks 50 years of bringing power to the people. Graham Walker goes behind the scenes of the largest power plant in the country – a history of resilience and innovation. Standing proudly in verdant North Yorkshire, the majestic Drax Power Station is celebrating half a century of powering progress and illuminating lives. This colossal structure, with its imposing cooling towers, is a testament to its enduring legacy and relentless innovation. Fifty years ago, Drax was born from the fiery ambition to harness the power of coal, its turbines roaring with the vigour of a lion freshly awoken. The symphony of steam and steel, the pulsating hum of its generators, all merged into a harmonious crescendo of human ingenuity and engineering prowess.

Today, Drax is a beacon of transformation, having reinvented itself as a paragon of sustainable energy, a phoenix risen from the ashes of its fossil-fuelled past. It is the largest power station in the country, providing power for four million homes, and plays a crucial role in UK energy security. The journey of Drax is painted with bold strokes of resilience and innovation. Once the titan of coal, it has now embraced the green revolution with open arms, pioneering the use of biomass and championing the cause of a cleaner, greener future. Drax is now at the vanguard of a groundbreaking technology that is set to revolutionise the energy sector once more: bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

This audacious endeavour seeks to capture the carbon dioxide produced during biomass combustion and sequester it deep beneath the Earth’s surface, permanently removing it from the atmosphere.

Drax is a trailblazer, paving the way towards a carbon-negative future. The vision transcends mere carbon neutrality; it aspires to remove more carbon than it emits, becoming a blueprint for future energy solutions.

Like sentinels of progress, its cooling towers stand like monuments to past triumphs and future aspirations. In this moment of celebration, Drax can reflect on also being an active participant in community initiatives, supporting local education, and contributing to social programmes. Drax has funded scholarships, sponsored local events and supported STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education programmes, fostering the next generation of engineers and scientists.

When Drax Power Station was first commissioned in 1974, it represented the height of coal power technology. With a capacity of 3,960 megawatts, Drax was the largest coal-fired power station in Western Europe. The 21st century brought a seismic shift in global attitudes towards energy production, to address climate change and reduce carbon emissions worldwide. Drax embarked on an ambitious project to convert its coal-fired units to biomass – organic matter, including wood waste, forest residues and plant material, in the form of pellets, sourced from the USA and Canada. Leading authorities on climate change support sustainable biomass as part of the cheapest, most effective way to reach net zero.
Between 2013 and 2018, Drax converted four of its six generating units to use biomass instead of coal and by then it had become the largest decarbonisation project in Europe, reducing its carbon emissions by over 80 per cent.

The power station is at a key moment in its history – it is set to be one of the first power stations in the world to convert to BECCS, the only industrial-scale technology that generates renewable power while simultaneously removing carbon from the atmosphere. The goal is a lower cost energy future, fuel security and a world-leading ambition to be carbon negative by 2030. Technology developed at Drax will also make it a reality in the USA and beyond. When two of Drax’s four generating units are converted, the power station will be the world’s largest carbon removal facility. It will remove up to eight million tonnes of CO2 each year – equivalent to cancelling all annual flight departures from Heathrow or taking three million cars off the road.

Drax already employs 1,000 people but the £2bn carbon capture and storage technology investment could create and support up to 10,000 jobs during construction. Drax hopes to have BECCS online by 2030 to support government climate targets. The project achieved a major milestone in January when it was granted a Development Consent Order by the Secretary of State. Before work can start, Drax awaits details of the government-run Track-2 CCS cluster sequencing process. Without clarity soon after the election, Drax and other businesses in industrial clusters are not able to take investment decisions and their projects risk delay. It is awaiting details from the new government on the transitional support it intends to provide to biomass generators, like Drax, looking to convert to BECCS.

Bruce Heppenstall, aged 54 Drax plant director, is proud of the station’s legacy and excited about the future. He said: “We’re looking forward to another 50 years, producing power and helping the UK reach its net zero goals. “We provide power for four million homes. That’s more than the size of the whole of Yorkshire. We contribute over £358m to the local economy. “As we come into our half century, we look back with pride at what’s been achieved. But we also look forward to what our legacy will be.”