Drax power plant is no greener than the coal it burns | Fred Pearce

Drax has shelved its biofuel plans, yet still boasts publicly about 'undertaking the largest biomass co-firing project in the world'

Drax is Britain's biggest power station. In fact, it is western Europe's biggest. It produces 7% of the country's electricity. By burning coal. For years, it has promised to replace some of that coal with locally grown biomass. But last week, its chief executive, Dorothy Thompson, appeared to tear up those plans.

If you travel north on the train from London towards York, you will have seen Drax. It is one of three gigantic power stations near the River Trent, in an area of lowland often called Megawatt Valley. Drax is the one with 12 cooling towers.

It is Britain's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide – about 22m tonnes in a typical year. It emits as much CO2 as one-quarter of all Britain's cars, and more than all the planes taking off from Heathrow in a year. It emits more than the whole of Sweden.

Drax was the last great coal-fired power station to be built in Britain by the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB). With its first stage completed in 1974, Drax was built in order to consume the output of Britain's big new super-colliery at nearby Selby.

A lot has happened since. The CEGB was privatised, and later in 2005, Drax became its own company, Drax Power. Meanwhile, the plans for the Selby coalfield were stillborn as Margaret Thatcher shut down the deep-mining industry.

Drax still burns a staggering 30,000 tonnes of coal a day. Instead of getting it from down the road, though, it gets at least half from South Africa and from Kuznetsk in south-west Siberia. If anything symbolises Britain's contribution to global warming, it is Drax. If anything would symbolise a serious greening of British energy production, it would be a change of fuel at Drax.

We had hopes. As CEO, Thompson looks and sounds like a breath of fresh air in a stale industry. She has been trumpeting the company's green credentials for years. In 2007, Thompson said she wanted to replace at least 10% of the coal in Drax's boilers with biomass crops such as rapeseed, elephant grass and willow coppice, much of it grown by local farmers. And there was more to come.

Now, all that seems to be off. In interviews ahead of this week's company results, Thompson said plans to convert part of Drax to co-burning biomass and coal – enough to cut its CO2 emissions by 2.5m tonnes – are on hold. The company says: "We will finish building the equipment needed to do co-firing, but we will not be using the plant until government policy on subsidies changes so that it makes economic sense for us to do so."

Also on hold are joint plans with the engineering company Siemens to build three new power plants in Britain running entirely on biomass. Only last month, Drax got planning permission for one of them, at Immingham. But these may now be built abroad, Thompson said.

That would, of course, be just as good for the planet as building in Britain. But it would be a blow to British renewable plans, and to Drax's efforts at building a green reputation on the back of its super-polluting plant. Again the company says government policy is to blame. Biomass power plants do not get the level of guaranteed subsidy enjoyed by wind farms. "Without those guarantees we cannot go to the investment community for funding for these power stations," it says.

Thompson is hard-headed about whether she goes green or not. Partly, it depends on whether the British government will subside its biomass as much as Russia subsidises its Siberian coal. But there are other factors.

Under the EU emissions trading scheme, Drax only has permission to emit 9.6m tonnes of CO2, less than half its actual emissions. It has to buy permits to make up the difference. But the price of permits fluctuates more than the price of coal or biomass.

Thompson says that if it is cheaper to burn coal and buy the permits, that is what she will do. And right now, because the carbon price is rock bottom, it is cheaper to burn coal.

She blames ministers for concentrating on building wind turbines. Yesterday, she added her voice to those of the energy bosses who oppose plans from MPs for a fixed emissions standard applicable to all power stations. "The UK is too early in its renewable strategy to impose one," she said.

Naturally, Thompson has a duty to get the best possible return for her shareholders. Especially, perhaps, right now: this week's results revealed a 64% drop in profits at Drax.

But this is a column about greenwash. Drax puts on green airs, but it is a profit-motivated company. End of story. It no longer appears correct to say, as its website still did on Wednesday, that Drax "is undertaking the largest biomass co-firing project in the world". As things stand, the project will be mothballed on completion. Or that "Drax is fully committed to developing a UK biomass market". It may want to, if conditions are right – but that is different.

Only last month, Drax boasted that it would soon be responsible for 15% of all Britain's renewable electricity, the equivalent of 2,000 wind turbines. Its website still makes that claim.

Right now, the company appears to be rowing backwards fast from such promises.

• Footnote added 12th March 2010. The original article referred to "biofuels" throughout. Drax Power have asked us to clarify this generic term to make clear their plant is only intended to co-fire biomass not biodeisel or bioethanol. We also originally said that the power station was completed in 1974. In fact the first stage was completed then, it was finally finished in 1984. We have also changed the text to reflect the fact that although privitisation happened in 1990, the current owners, Drax Group Plc, did not acquire ownership until 2005.


Fred Pearce

The GuardianTramp

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