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Why BECCS could define the UK’s ability to hit its climate goals

The success of Drax’s biomass and carbon capture efforts could be essential to the UK’s ability to hit its longer-term climate goals – but there are very real concerns about the technology’s ability to work at the scale envisaged.

  • Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) technology is scheduled to be installed at the Drax biomass power station between 2030 and 2035.
  • If successful it will remove a net 8 Mt CO2 per year from the atmosphere – vital if the UK is to meet its net zero ambitions
  • There is only one other BECCS biomass power project operating elsewhere in the world – 44 times smaller than Drax’s BECCS project
  • Biomass feedstock may not be as sustainable as advocates hope, with the time necessary for tree growth to offset burning a particular concern
  • Joined-up policy framework essential if concerns are to be allayed, and BECCS is to meet its potential

The Net Zero Strategy, published in October 2021 outlines the UK government’s ambition to deploy at least 5 million tonnes of CO2 per year of engineered carbon removals by 2030, rising to 23Mt per year by 2035, with a further hike up to 81Mt of CO2 per year by 2050.

Key to achieving this ambition is the government’s decision to approve plans to install bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) technology at the Drax Power Station in orth Yorkshire.

Two of its four biomass generation units will be fitted with equipment that captures emissions from the plant before they can reach the atmosphere.

Generating around 4% of the UK’s electricity, Drax is currently the UK’s single largest carbon emitter, according to calculations by Ember. The plant relies primarily on imported wood pellets from forests in North America as feedstock, partly using their own supply but also through third-party suppliers. In 2022 Drax is estimated to have burnt through 6.5Mt of wood, emitting 12.1Mt CO2.

It may be the biggest power sector emitter, but the electricity generated at Drax is still classified as renewable (its estimated to provide ~9% of UK renewable power generation). This is because carbon emitted from the burning of biomass is assumed to be offset as the trees grow. The EU’s Renewable Energy Directive counts electricity generated using biomass as renewable energy – a definition that has since been applied by the UK since Britain left the EU.

Drax hopes to take this one step further. By capturing and permanently storing the carbon emitted from the power station, the group claims that it will result in net carbon removal from the atmosphere. According to Drax, carbon capture technology will remove up to 8Mt CO2 per year from the two biomass units, or ~95% of their annual emissions.

The first BECCS unit, capable of capturing up to 4Mt CO2 per year, is due to become operational by 2030, with the second equally sized unit expected to come online in the early 2030s.

Drax Power Station in Yorkshire. Source: Drax

Once the BECCS units are online, storage must be available to permanent sequester the carbon. Drax is part of the East Coast Cluster (ECC), one of the two ‘Track-1’ CCUS clusters aiming to become operational by the late 2020s. Although other carbon storage projects are expected to capture CO2 for storage beneath the North Sea, Drax is by far the largest. At 8Mt CO2 per year of carbon capture, Drax represents 35% of the Net Zero Strategy carbon removal target for 2035.

At present there are no planning applications in place to convert Drax’s other two biomass generation units to BECCS, but this could of course happen at some point. The only other large UK biomass power plant hoping to install BECCS is Northumberland-based Lynemouth power station, which burns an estimated 1Mt of wood per year. However, longer-term there is likely to be a need for even more BECCS capacity in the UK.

According to the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) Sixth Carbon Budget report, BECCS will need to remove 53Mt CO2 per year by 2050 under its Balanced Net Zero Pathway scenario, of which 20Mt will come from biomass power generation. This scenario is the CCC’s baseline scenario and represents a decisive transition to net zero, with over 60% of the necessary net emission reduction occurring in the period 2020-35, and the fastest rate of decarbonisation occurring in the early 2030s.

The success of the Drax BECCS project could very well define the UK’s ability to hit its longer-term climate goals. However, there are very real concerns about the ability of this technology to work at the scale envisaged at Drax, coupled with worries that biomass feedstock may not be as sustainable as its advocates suggest.

Track record and sustainability concerns

The largest operating BECCS project to date is the Illinois Industrial CCS bioethanol plant. It has been capturing 1Mt CO2 per year for permanent storage in a deep geological formation since 2018. Other small-scale bioethanol facilities are capturing CO2 in Europe and the US, although the CO2 is typically sold to greenhouses to boost crop yields or used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR). Bioethanol is one of the lowest-cost BECCS applications due to the high concentration of CO2 in the process gas stream. The higher the CO2 concentration, the lower the energy required to capture the gas.

In contrast to bioethanol, carbon capture from biomass combustion plants is at a much earlier stage in its commercial development.

The only BECCS power plant currently operating is the 50MW Mikawa power station in Japan. The plant was retrofitted with BECCS and started operating in October 2020. It is thought to capture more than 0.18 Mt CO2 per annum (over 50% half of the emissions from the plant), although it is not clear whether the CO2 is stored for permanent removal. Future phases of the project outlined by Toshiba envision additional facilities for transport of CO2 to offshore storage by 2030.

Facilities at Toshiba’s BECCS-equipped Mikawa power station in Japan. Source: Toshiba

In addition to the absence of a track record indicating BECCS can operate at the scale required, critics have also raised concerns over the supply of biomass used to feed biomass combustion plants. The areas of concern highlighted by campaigners include: the significant time required for forests to regrow (~100 years); whether harvesting wood results in habitat loss and other adverse environmental impacts; and the size of other process emissions (e.g. pelletising, shipping, etc.).

An investigation by BBC Panorama in 2022 revealed that wood pellets destined for Drax had been harvested from mature forests in North America rather than sustainable sources, casting doubt on the project’s sustainability claims.

Commodity risks

BECCS also involves significant commodity risk – both price and volume.

Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet producer and which reportedly has supplied around 15% of Drax feedstock, appeared to be on the verge of filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in mid-February. Despite burgeoning demand for wood pellets among European and Asian wood-burning power plants, the company suffered a significant financial impairment.

In its Q3 2023 filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the company cited “the amount of low-cost wood fiber that we are able to procure and process,” as a reason for their poor performance. To compensate for that the company had to bid for more expensive wood from mature forests.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that global operational BECCS capacity could hit 50Mt CO2 annually by 2030. But this depends on all planned BECCS projects – those under construction and at the feasibility stage – being built over the next six years. Around 15% of this capacity hinges on the Drax BECCS project starting before the end of the decade.

If the IEA’s BECCS capacity projection is realised, it will increase demand for the already scarce sustainable biomass feedstock that exists. This in turn will result in higher feedstock prices, which may then threaten the commercial viability of BECCS projects.

Joined-up policy essential

In August the UK Government published its Biomass Strategy, boldly stating its position that a “well regulated” BECCS market will play a major role in delivering carbon removal. One of the most important areas of focus within the Strategy was biomass feedstock sustainability. It confirms that the Government will “develop and implement a cross-sectoral common sustainability framework” to define biomass that is low-carbon, while also exploring the role of the UK’s domestic biomass feedstock as a secure and sustainable source of supply.

In response, the National Audit Office (NAO) urged the Government to prove that the biomass industry – in which Drax accounts for over 90% of biomass generation sector emissions – is meeting strict sustainability rules.

A series of announcements in early 2024 are likely to increase scrutiny over BECCS sustainability. First, UK Government funding for energy generation resulting in “unabated” emissions had been scheduled to end in 2027, in line with a recommendation by the CCC. Drax has been a beneficiary of this support, typically receiving around three-quarters of a billion pounds in subsidies per year. In early 2024 the Government announced that it was launching a consultation (due to close 29 February) on a transitional support mechanism for large-scale biomass generators.

If adopted, the proposals would see funding extended by three years to 2030, tying in with the date at which BECCS is expected to be operational at Drax. The consultation announcement sparked a legal challenge from campaigners concerned about the sustainability of BECCS.

Vessels bringing in pellet feedstock at Peel Ports site in Liverpool. Source: Drax

Second, French nuclear operator EDF announced that the UK may have to wait until 2031 (previously 2028) before the 3.2GW Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant will start generating electricity. Aurora Research calculates that a two-year delay could lead to shortfall of about 38 TWh (~4% of GB electricity demand) during the period 2028-30.

With very little time for generation capacity to respond the delay is likely to result in an increase in the utilisation of existing generation capacity, and a greater reliance on gas and electricity imports. Aurora estimates that this is likely to result in an additional 6.2Mt CO2e of emissions across the period 2028-30. The delay is likely to increase demand for biomass generation capable of delivering baseload power, but it will also lead to increase scrutiny of the carbon costs and benefits of biomass generation and BECCS.

Any delay in implementing BECCS could deter investment in carbon storage, especially if developers become concerned that they won’t be able to capitalise on a steady stream of captured CO2. The Carbon Capture and Storage Association (CCSA) estimates that carbon storage projects need £2-3 billion in annual support if the CCUS Vision of capturing 20-30 Mt CO2 per year by 2030, and more than 50 Mt CO2 per year by 2035, is to be achieved.

CCSA modelling indicates that UK Government support should begin to decline from 2032 onwards, as market-based mechanisms are introduced (e.g., carbon removals included within the UK emissions trading scheme), and carbon capture volumes increase. Any delay in ramping up BECCS capacity is likely to mean increased demand for subsidies to support carbon storage.

Until recently, the focus has been on ensuring that policies are in place to ensure that sufficient carbon storage infrastructure is developed. As E-FWD has previously outlined, the UK is in an enviable position to take advantage of this and secure a competitive advantage relative to its competitors. Attention must now turn to the other side of the challenge – making sure that carbon capture technology delivers on the carbon removal benefits it promises.

Promising to remove 8 Mt CO2 per year, the Drax BECCS plans symbolise the UK’s great net zero ambition, but it must now be backed up by sound policies and regulation that leaves no one in any doubt.

Success or failure, BECCS could very well define the UK’s ability to meet its net zero climate goals.

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