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.”


Tanker off UAE sought by US over Iran sanctions ‘hijacked’

Updated 16 July 2020

Tanker off UAE sought by US over Iran sanctions ‘hijacked’

  • The circumstances of the hijack are still unclear and the boat has been tracked to Iranian waters

DUBAI: An oil tanker sought by the US over allegedly circumventing sanctions on Iran was hijacked on July 5 off the coast of the UAE, a seafarers organization said Wednesday.

Satellite photos showed the vessel in Iranian waters on Tuesday and two of its sailors remained in the Iranian capital.

It wasn’t immediately clear what happened aboard the Dominica-flagged MT Gulf Sky, though its reported hijacking comes after months of tensions between Iran and the US

David Hammond, the CEO of the United Kingdom-based group Human Rights at Sea, said he took a witness statement from the captain of the MT Gulf Sky, confirming the ship had been hijacked.

Hammond said that 26 of the Indian sailors on board had made it back to India, while two remained in Tehran, without elaborating.

“We are delighted to hear that the crew are safe and well, which has been our fundamental concern from the outset,” Hammond told The Associated Press.

Hammond said that he had no other details about the vessel.

TankerTrackers.com, a website tracking the oil trade at sea, said it saw the vessel in satellite photos on Tuesday in Iranian waters off Hormuz Island. 

Hormuz Island, near the port city of Bandar Abbas, is some 190 kilometers (120 miles) north of Khorfakkan, a city on the eastern coast of the United Arab Emirates where the vessel had been for months.

The Emirati government, the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi and the US Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet did not respond to requests for comment. Iranian state media did not immediately report on the vessel and Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In May, the US Justice Department filed criminal charges against two Iranians, accusing them of trying to launder some $12 million to purchase the tanker, at that time named the MT Nautica, through a series of front companies. 

The vessel then took on Iranian oil from Kharg Island to sell abroad, the US government said.

Court documents allege the scheme involved the Quds Force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which is its elite expeditionary unit, as well as Iran’s national oil and tanker companies. The two men charged, one of whom also has an Iraqi passport, remain at large.

“Because a US bank froze the funds related to the sale of the vessel, the seller never received payment,” the Justice Department said. “As a result, the seller instituted a civil action in the UAE to recover the vessel.”

That civil action was believed to be still pending, raising questions of how the tanker sailed away from the Emirates after being seized by authorities there.

Data from the MT Gulf Sky’s Automatic Identification System tracker shows it had been turned off around 4:30 a.m. on July 5, according to ship-tracking website MarineTraffic.com. Ships are supposed to keep their AIS trackers on, but Iranian vessels routinely turn theirs off to mask their movements.

Meanwhile, the 28 Indian sailors on board the vessel found themselves stuck on board without pay for months, according to the International Labor Organization. It filed a report saying the vessel and its sailors had been abandoned by its owners since March off Khorfakkan. The ILO did not respond to a request for comment.

As tensions between Iran and the US heated up last year, tankers plying the waters of the Mideast became targets, particularly near the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the Arabian Gulf’s narrow mouth through which 20 percent of all oil passes. Suspected limpet mine attacks the US blamed on Iran targeted several tankers. Iran denied being involved, though it did seize several tankers.