The giant coal plant converting to green energy

The giant coal plant converting to green energy

On the train to visit one of the last places in Britain that burns coal for electricity, I pass three solar farms soaking up sunshine. I also pass a coal plant called Eggborough that has all but ceased operations. No steam rises from its giant cooling towers. It will shut in September.

But the coal plant I’m visiting is different. It’s named Drax, after a local village, and is the largest power plant in Western Europe. By 2023, its owners plan to stop burning coal entirely. They hope that instead their plant will consume only natural gas and biomass – wood pellets crushed into powder.

The European Union has some key targets for reducing pollution in the coming decades and coal power plants have been earmarked for closure by many countries seeking to meet these objectives. In the UK, government plans mean coal-fired electricity generation will end by 2025.

A similar story is unfolding elsewhere in the world. Many nations, including the US, are moving away from coal as other energies become cheaper and as environmental regulations cool the market for this fossil fuel.

But this leaves a big question: what do we do with all of those old power stations?

For the past century, these facilities have been huge players in the world’s energy market. The plants have expensive connections to national grids – meaning that simply knocking them down might not be so smart. Many, including Drax’s management, are insisting that there is another way.

The scale of Drax is immediately apparent. On either side of the huge buildings that house its boilers and turbines stand six beige cooling towers. White steam drifts skyward. In the middle of the complex stands a 259m-tall chimney. And at the back of the facility there is a huge pile of coal – but staff members tell me it is much smaller now than it once was.

Coal is left here until it is brought into the power station on conveyor belts, ground up and burnt at ferocious temperatures. The furnace heats up water, turning it into steam that rushes through a complex system of pipes and spins turbines at a steady 3,000 revolutions per minute. It’s an easy way of producing electricity. It’s also a dirty one.

Energy shift

This is a large part of why coal’s days here really are numbered. In April, Britain went for more than three full days without any coal power at all – a decline that has happened far more quickly than many expected. This trend has meant that since the start of 2018, the country has managed a total of 1,000 hours without coal energy, already topping last year’s tally.

Source: BBC

Date: September 2018

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Tags assigned to this article:
coalenergyfossil fuelsrenewables

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