Carbon in question

Smoke billowing from Drax Power Station’s chimneys has fuelled protesters’ fire, but we need viable solutions before chanting ‘carbon free’, says Hugh Pearman

So the days of innocence are over for the mighty coal-fired Drax Power Station near Selby in Yorkshire, now the target of anti-carbon protesters. That’s a shame, because I harbour a guilty secret: it’s one of my favourite places. I wondered how long it would be before it became a target. As a strategic resource – providing 7 per cent of all Britain’s electricity – it always seemed to have remarkably little security around it. That has now changed.

I have been inside it, taken a lift up its gargantuan chimney, stood on top and looked down at its twin clusters – one circular, one oval – of cooling towers. And despite the fact that colossal amounts of heat and fumes shoot into the atmosphere through three giant nozzles a few feet away, you would hardly know. You are just aware of a slight warmth, a slight vibration as if from some distant central heating boiler.

I have walked through the clamour of its astonishing steam turbine hall. I have seen machines like huge pepper grinders that turn the coal into a fine dust that is injected into the boilers. I have noted Drax’s promising experiments in burning renewable biomass – coppiced willow and crushed olive residue. I found that it also produces the raw materials for plasterboard and building blocks as a by-product of combustion and sulphur removal. And I have seen deer and songbirds in the nature reserve established on its cunningly landscaped spoil tip. Drax is a villain with a conscience. But what’s all of this got to do with design?

Apart from the extraordinarily impressive design of the complex itself – dating from the Harold Wilson, white-heat-of-technology era – the Drax question is all about how we structure our lives in the future. We are governed by a squirming electronic jelly of binary impulses, and I don’t mean Tony Blair’s brain. When the computers shut down, so does civilisation.

If not Drax, then what? No doubt the same protesters who tried to blockade the plant recently would be even more appalled if it were to be replaced with the carbon-free nuclear option. They would object equally to a new gas-powered plant or one that incinerated refuse, because both would involve lots of carbon emissions. Having protested, they would go home on an electric train, take a beer out of the electric fridge, and turn on the electric telly.

But although I love the sheer engineering magnificence of Drax, I know the protesters are right. We can’t go on producing power like that. Yet everybody knows that every building can generate a lot of power, simply by fitting photovoltaic panels – and more basic solar hot-water panels. I could equip my house tomorrow. So could you. But it’s expensive, and the few grants available are tiny.

Why is it expensive? Instead of spending billions on Drax replacements, why not spend the same money subsidising everyone to turn their homes and offices into carbon-free micro-generating plants? You need back-up capacity for night-time, but then you need back-up for when winds don’t blow the windmill turbines round.

Is there a design group that does not use lots of computers and big screens? Think how good it would feel if you knew you weren’t burning something to power them. How great it would be for leading consultancies, big employers, to go carbon neutral. And then Drax could close, be listed as a prime industrial monument, and we’d all go there on tourist trips. By horse.

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