Harnessing clean tech for economic growth

Carbon capture and storage can kick-start a jobs-led green recovery in the north of England.

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Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time. As we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, we must accelerate our efforts to ensure we achieve the UK’s target to reach net zero by 2050. This year and next will be crucial in putting measures in place to achieve that legally binding ambition.
As we decarbonise and transform the economy, it is vital that no one is left behind. A green recovery must create jobs and opportunities for people, as well as for business and the economy. Deploying bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) at scale is a major opportunity to preserve – and create – jobs and skills in new clean technologies as we decarbonise the economy.

At Drax Power Station in Selby, North Yorkshire, we are pioneering BECCS – a ground-breaking negative emissions technology that permanently removes CO2 from the atmosphere and safely locks it away in storage in the ground where it belongs, while also producing renewable electricity.

Both the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and the National Grid – in its latest report – say that negative emissions from BECCS must be part of the extensive changes the UK needs to undertake in order to achieve net zero. The UN’s IPCC says that negative emissions technologies, such as BECCS, will be needed globally to help offset emissions from sectors that are the hardest to decarbonise, such as agriculture and aviation.

BECCS uses biomass from sustainably managed forests that absorb CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow, balancing emissions released when biomass is used to generate power. Because these forests are replanted and remain as forests, they are continuously sequestering carbon, making the biomass carbon neutral.

Combining biomass power generation with carbon capture and storage delivers negative emissions as more CO2 is stored – in the forests and in geological storage – than is emitted, even accounting for emissions from our supply chain. Drax has already successfully trialled one BECCS technology at the power station and we are currently installing a second pilot with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. In early 2019, Drax became the first power generator in the world to capture CO2 from a 100 per cent biomass feedstock using BECCS. Scaling up BECCS at Drax Power Station could deliver 16 million tonnes of negative emissions a year – a significant proportion of the 51 million tonnes the CCC says are required from BECCS for the UK to reach net zero.

Alongside helping the UK meet its net zero target, BECCS at Drax can support the development of new skills, jobs, investment and clean growth, while helping to safeguard thousands of jobs in industries across the north of England that need to decarbonise to survive, such as steel and petrochemicals.

The job opportunities include those at Drax Power Station and thousands more in the supply chain to continue generating renewable electricity and negative emissions with BECCS, as well as the workforce needed to construct and operate the CO2 transport and storage infrastructure. Drax already supports 5,700 jobs throughout its biomass supply chain in the north and generates around £600m a year for the region’s economy.

BECCS at Drax could anchor a net zero industrial cluster in the Humber – the UK’s most carbon-intensive industrial region – creating multiple opportunities for the north of England to lead the way in clean technologies, skills and jobs. That is because it would enable other industrial emitters across the region to tap into the same CO2 transportation and storage infrastructure to capture and store their emissions – creating an even greater benefit for emissions reduction and helping safeguard around 55,000 existing jobs in the Humber.

By 2040, a Zero Carbon Humber could capture and store 15 per cent of the UK’s annual emissions. BECCS at Drax can help position the UK as a global leader in the development – and export – of a vital negative emissions technology that the UN’s IPCC says will be needed around the world to combat climate change.

We have not limited our work to negative emissions technologies – we are also exploring ways to use the CO2 we capture with BECCS to enable other sectors to decarbonise. For example, at our carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS) incubation area at Drax Power Station we are working with cleantech company Econic, based in north-west England, which is looking to use our CO2 instead of oil to produce polyurethane plastic products. Deep Branch Biotechnology – a Nottingham University spin-off – is using our CO2 in a pilot to produce proteins for sustainable animal feeds.

Drax has already gone through a radical transformation: we moved from being western Europe's largest polluter to its largest decarbonisation project. Our journey away from coal is almost complete – we will stop using coal in March 2021. We have already demonstrated that large-scale transformation is possible. But we want to go further and deliver negative emissions to support Britain’s net zero target.

Time is of the essence. We need to get more clarity in the coming months on the investment and policy frameworks to get BECCS off the ground, helping to drive a post-Covid green economic recovery in the north and throughout the country. We need to work together now to capture the opportunity that technologies such as BECCS create for our climate and our communities.

Will Gardiner is the CEO of Drax.

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