In the rush to remove fossil fuels from power generation, burning biomass has come to the fore. The most common approach burns wood from sustainable, managed forests. Because the released CO2 is captured by the trees planted to replace the fuel, biomass can claim “renewable” credentials.
There is disquiet about including Biomass in renewable fuel mixes. It’s true the fuel is replaced within a relatively short timespan, typically a decade for a managed forest. It’s also true some of the fuel is made up of low grade wood, waste material and other discarded materials that might otherwise find their way into landfill or pulp. However, it still requires fuel to be burnt and CO2 to be released, along with other harmful pollutants and particles.
Is carbon capture the future?
Drax (disclaimer: they’re a former consulting client of the author) is attempting to address some of these concerns with a pilot project in their Selby power station. The site has been undergoing a multi-year regeneration programme to move it away from coal and onto biomass and natural gas. Fuel is still burnt, but this happens inside latest generation furnaces with all the technology to match. The latest addition is a carbon capture pilot that pulls the CO2 out of the exhaust before it reaches the atmosphere.
The technology works by using a chemical reaction to capture CO2 molecules in a solution. The solution can then be processed, releasing the CO2 into a form that can either be stored or passed to other industrial processes. The original chemicals can then be reused.
On balance: cautious good news
If the carbon capture technology works as expected this is a positive step forwards. It will help the UK achieve a coal-free grid by 2025 as the Government has set out. It should also help move the country towards a lower carbon grid, even if it doesn’t remove CO2 completely from the point of generation.