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BECCS takes two steps back

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

Drax is in the news again for its proposed bioenergy and carbon capture and storage (BECCS) plant in the UK. And again, the news isn't great.

Drax had planned a $2.5 billion, 2.6 GW power plant to burn biomass and capture the carbon it created. In principle, this plant could be net carbon negative, because the captured CO2 is injected into the ground, making it the equivalent of burying trees after extracting their energy as fuel. Drax has paused those plans until and unless the UK government offers direct subsidies to cover many of the costs.

BECCS as a whole is not universally loved by environmentalists, who object to deforestation that comes with wood-burning, even though Drax says it only uses wood residuals from trees primarily used for lumber. The wood is planned to be largely sourced from North America, and therefore requires forest management practices outside of the UK government's control, and will consume substantial amounts of energy during transport. Perhaps more importantly, importation means that there is no forestry constituency within the UK to counter other political opposition.

It does not help that BECCS has proven a difficult technology to make economic in the paper, cement, and steel industries as well. In power, BECCS must compete against truly clean alternatives such as offshore wind and solar, which continue to drop in price. The carbon capture process at a traditional pulverized coal plant uses about 1/3 of all the plant's energy, and a similar loss is expected for Drax's biomass boiler, making electricity significantly more expensive than traditional coal. The Drax plant would of course generate baseload power, which is more valuable than intermittent wind, and justifies a higher price. But perhaps this is not enough. BECCS is appealing in principle, but in practice the technical and economic challenges make it marginally competitive with renewables, which allow political factors to dictate the outcome. For BECCS is to be made to work at scale, it will have to be in a country with ample forest, and geology that makes carbon storage simple. This may be more of a niche technology than the world imagines.

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