Review of Green Drinks Leeds’ visit to Drax, by Virginie Lenfant

August 30, 2011

Joining Green Drinks Leeds in July this year, I thought would give me a little insight into the world of sustainability. One that I would like to get more acquainted with, particularly with regards to food. I didn’t anticipate I’d be getting into interesting talks about sustainable paving, feed-in tariffs or power stations. When Adam suggested a visit to Drax, I turned to my neighbour with a puzzled face; I didn’t know the biggest Power station in Western Europe, nor that it was only a few miles away near Selby. What a fantastic opportunity. Nothing to do with food. But I was going.

Adam promised Drax there would be no argy bargy. We were all looking forward to visiting the largest coal & biomass co-firing Power Station in the world and understanding the processes and challenges; not to chain ourselves to the cooling towers, all in the name of Green. Actually, that would have been an interesting challenge, since each of those cooling towers can comfortably fit a cathedral the size of St Paul’s in it. But that’s not what we’re about.

All 35 of us shared cars, some provided by private taxi firm Greenbean Cars Ltd (loving those Prius hybrids), to make our way from Leeds City Centre to Selby for the 7pm tour. Tours of Drax are available to the public. Schools often visit during the week, and the Drax tour team are very used to delivering an informative, fun and awe-inspiring experience (certainly for the kids and I), not forgetting the impressive statistics I’ll never remember by heart.

Our tour guides – yes, they needed a few to manage us – took us to the learning centre first, so that we could get our bearings around the site, understand how electricity is generated at Drax and pick-up the safety equipment we would have to wear during the visit. We also needed to get to grips with the various terms we would be hearing during the visit: the pulverising mills (coal and biomass have to be a very fine powder to be burned efficiently), the boiler burners, the desulphurisation absorber tower, just to name a few. The main site visit started with a guided bus tour around the site, before we donned the yellow vest, hard hat, goggles and audio equipment for the indoor experience. Drax is ginormous and very impressive. I felt like I’d stepped behind the screen, in Metropolis, all in black and white, but with the eye of Charlie in the chocolate factory. Except, it was no chocolate and they were no Oompa loompas.

Drax produces 7% of the UK’s demand in electricity. Although it is an obviously high CO2 generating process, due to increasing regulations and environmental protection measures, Drax strive to make the process as efficient as possible and reduce pollution. Increasing amounts of less-polluting biomass is used. By-products such as pulverised fuel ash, furnace-bottom ash and gypsum are recuperated and sold to other manufacturing industries. The flue gas desulphurisation plant removes at least 90% of the sulphur dioxide before gases are released into the atmosphere. Water for cooling is recycled around the site. The remainder of the waste is taken to the nearby Barlow site where it is transformed and restored for agricultural use.

More could be done in terms of eco-efficiency and Drax are working on improvements and new techniques. But I will leave discussions around those, carbon capture & storage and combined heat & power to our specialists in the group!

The tour finished at 9pm. Final chit-chats, sharing of insights and goodbyes on the car park and we all departed pretty much as we came. I don’t know about you or the others in the group, but my eyes were still startled when I got home and my head still struggling to take in the various facts and stats we’d been given.

Thanks to Adam and Anzir for the organisation. An impressive, and certainly memorable experience for my last Green Drinks Leeds!

Virginie Lenfant

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