UK plant nears full switch away from coal

From being one of the worst polluters in the country, Drax has pivoted to an ambitious policy to reduce carbon emissions. (AFP/File)
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Updated 01 June 2020

UK plant nears full switch away from coal

  • The Drax operation, providing 4 million households with electricity, sees CO2 emitted from burnt wood captured by newly planted trees

LONDON: As the coronavirus pandemic undermines the production of cleaner renewable fuels, the UK’s biggest electricity plant is close to using only biomass following a bumpy transition away from coal.

Situated in Yorkshire, northern England, the Drax Group power plant will complete its switch next year after embarking on a journey almost a decade ago to use organic matter alongside the fossil fuel to slash carbon emissions.

But the company’s method of capturing CO2 continues to raise concerns even as biomass has become Britain’s second largest renewable energy behind wind power, with only a handful of coal-run plants remaining in the UK. The Drax operation, providing 4 million households with electricity, sees CO2 emitted from burnt wood captured by newly planted trees.

Drax adds that the switch, in line with UK government policy to ban the use of coal by 2025, allows it to keep the plant running and maintain 900 jobs.

“More than 10 years ago, Drax was looking at its future ... and the UK, at the same time, was looking about how it could deliver its climate change objectives,” recalls Drax CEO Will Gardiner.

“And those two things came together in a very auspicious way so that there was a good recognition in the UK that biomass was a very good alternative ... to increase renewable power,” he told AFP in an interview. But the use of biomass to generate electricity is not without controversy.

In 2018, a total of 800 scientists wrote to the European Parliament calling for such biomass to be limited to wood residues, including cut branches, to limit deforestation. But even with such a move, gains to the environment can be trimmed by sourcing wood from afar. “Once you move from local usage ... to extracting trees from distant countries and shipping them to a factory, you are adding quite a significant amount of additional CO2 to the atmosphere,” noted Michael Norton, environment program director at European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC).

Norton added that it “takes anything from several decades to centuries to recover through the growth” of new trees.

The Drax plant imports from North America 80 percent of the wood that it burns, although Gardiner stresses that the company uses branches that otherwise would “rot in the fields and emit CO2.”

The International Energy Agency last week said in a joint report that “COVID-19 is intensifying the urgent need to expand sustainable energy solutions worldwide” — a timely boost for companies like Drax amid ongoing criticism regarding their net contribution in helping to tackle climate change.

“The growth of electricity generation from renewables appears to have slowed down as a result of the pandemic, according to the available data,” said the report, written also by the World Health Organization.

“But they so far appear to be holding up much better than other major fuels such as coal and natural gas,” it added.

Gardiner told AFP that he “doesn’t think there will be any coal or natural gas in our system in 2050.”

He added: “In the UK, I think wind power in 2050 probably will be 80 percent of the energy mix.

“At the same time, you always need something else in addition to wind power to provide for flexibility and for system support,” he said, noting that “biomass can do that.”


Analysts urge Canada to focus on boosting the economy

Updated 06 July 2020

Analysts urge Canada to focus on boosting the economy

  • Canada lost one of its coveted triple-A ratings in June when Fitch downgraded it for the first time

TORONTO: Canada should focus on boosting economic growth after getting pummeled by the COVID-19 crisis, analysts say, even as concerns about the sustainability of its debt are growing, with Fitch downgrading the nation’s rating just over a week ago.

Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau will deliver a “fiscal snapshot” on Wednesday that will outline the current balance sheet and may give an idea of the money the government is setting aside for the future.

As the economy recovers, some fiscal support measures, which are expected to boost the budget deficit sharply, could be wound down and replaced by incentives meant to get people back to work and measures to boost economic growth, economists said.

“The only solution to these large deficits is growth, so we need a transition to a pro-growth agenda,” said Craig Wright, chief economist at Royal Bank of Canada. The IMF expects Canada’s economy to contract by 8.4 percent this year. Ottawa is already rolling out more than C$150 billion in direct economic aid, including payments to workers impacted by COVID-19.

Further stimulus measures could include a green growth strategy, as well as spending on infrastructure, including smart infrastructure, economists said. Smart infrastructure makes use of digital technology.

“We have to make sure that government spending is calibrated to the economy of the future rather than the economy of the past,” Wright said.

Canada lost one of its coveted triple-A ratings in June when Fitch downgraded it for the first time, citing the billions of dollars in emergency aid Ottawa has spent to help bridge the downturn caused by COVID-19 shutdowns.

Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and DBRS still give Canadian debt the highest rating. At DBRS, Michael Heydt, the lead sovereign analyst on Canada, says his concern is about potential structural damage to the economy if the slowdown lingers too long.

Fiscal policymakers “need to be confident that there is a recovery underway before they start talking about (debt) consolidation,” Heydt said.

Fitch expects Canada’s total government debt will rise to 115.1 percent of GDP in 2020 from 88.3 percent in 2019.

Royce Mendes, a senior economist at CIBC Capital Markets, said the economy still needs more support.

“Turning too quickly toward austerity would be a clear mistake,” he said.