inside the machine

It is all very well discussing transitions, but how well do you really know what it means in real terms? During a week spent considering how we can make sense of energy issues, the group took a trip to see a power station in action. With a capacity of nearly 4,000MW, Drax is the largest single power station in the UK. Opened in 1973 and later extended, it was built as a coal-fired power station next to the Selby coalfields, at a time when the Central Electricity Generating Board was building up its network of large and larger central power generating units.

Visiting Drax power station 2018

Drax became notorious as the most polluting coal-fired plant in the UK, and was therefore the first to install desulfurisation equipment, becoming then the cleanest plant. It improved its efficiency in 2012 with a major turbine upgrade. However, with the UK commitment to phase out coal-fired generation, the board then decided to convert two of its 6 generating units to biomass generation.

According to our guide, Drax currently takes up some 60% of the world’s production of sawdust-pellets. Beyond this, the market for pellets or other biomass products takes the price of pellets beyond a rate that would enable the plant to produce at a viable cost. Drax therefore continues to use both coal and biomass to generate electricity, but will have to phase out coal before 2025 to accord with UK climate commitments.

Coal ‘field’

For our group, seeing the scale of the power station was itself a significant experience. On a brisk windy day, with snow whirling round our bus as we left Durham, we arrived to find Drax generating from several of its units, and steam swirling around the cooling towers.

The turbine Hall

Christopher reminded us that this one plant could produce more than three times the whole of the generating capacity in Panama, and the scale of the plant impressed itself on us as we toured the plant in a little electric bus with tarpaulin doors. We were free to photograph all but the control room, where one of the controllers explained his duties. Seeing the huge turbine hall, the biomass stores, the mammoth storeroom for collecting gypsum from the coal-boiler-residue, and the fields of coal stretching away reminded us of what is meant by ‘sunk costs’, ‘path dependency’, and ‘life-cycle analysis’. This side of everyday energy practices was made evident in contrast to the usual use of energy services that we too often take for granted.

Thank you to Drax for giving us so much time and for your hospitality.

in the visitor centre

on the bus