In an ongoing quest to make renewable electricity more affordable, efficient and environmentally friendly, Drax and Siemens have been collaborating to develop a range of innovative biomass and renewable energy solutions

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In 2018, as part of a plan to reduce the cost of biomass generation, Drax announced a £40m upgrade to significantly improve the efficiency of three of its biomass generating units. The contract with Siemens in Newcastle includes replacing three HP turbines with a more modern barrel turbine design, as well as a new turbine governing and control system. The work which began in July 2019 will take three years to complete, with one biomass unit being upgraded each year as part of its planned maintenance programme. Higher efficiency will come from the new blading design and long-life seals within the turbines and the new pipework and valves.

The success of the project however lies in the longstanding relationship between both companies, which Steve Austin, lead turbine engineer from Drax credits to “simple and open conversation that has solved a tremendous amount and really made things happen.” Supporting that success is also an innovative funding approach which thanks to Siemens Financial Services has helped to give the initiative momentum and enhance the payback of the project.

Having worked with the Siemens team in Newcastle over a number of years, Drax has already successfully converted four of its six power generation units to use biomass instead of coal, delivering carbon savings of more than 80 per cent – making it the biggest decarbonisation project in Europe. Drax is also the UK’s largest renewable electricity generator, producing 11 per cent of the country’s renewable electricity.

Collaboration has been fundamental to the success of the project and in finding solutions much more quickly. Steve Austin, added: “We’re working in a very collaborative partnership and the fact we can talk very openly about our businesses, without being guarded or stifled, gets us to a solution much more quickly.”

Innovative ideas and improvements have also played a significant role in aiding the project, which have been facilitated through the business’ blue-sky discussions. An all-important forum, given their ambitious plans to make

Drax the best available power generator on the grid and a strategic asset to the UK. As Steve said: “No ideas are off limits. Every suggestion is listened to and Siemens is very good at facilitating them. Ninety-five per cent of the ideas on the list won’t make the final cut, but five per cent go onto the shortlist and that’s what we go away and drive forward.”

Over a decade has passed since Siemens last carried out a major upgrade on the HP turbines. With laser tracking the team can now make much more accurate measurements on the design and fit of the barrel turbine.

Steve explained: “A small improvement in efficiency makes a big difference in the biomass world because the cost of fuel is much higher. The other driver is emissions. We want to do all we can to keep emissions to a minimum.”

As well as the team’s blue sky thinking another key component in giving the project much needed momentum was finance. Introduced by the Newcastle team to Siemens Financial Services, Drax was able to take advantage of an innovative financing proposal which is already paying dividends and enhancing the payback of the project.

Gill Danby, procurement projects manager at Drax said: “It essentially means that we make reduced upfront payments during the start of the project, which helps us with our working capital and means we can fund other projects.”

With major projects, a frequent challenge is incurring big upfront costs many months before the financial benefits start coming through. “We’re always looking for the initial payments to be as low as possible, so to start getting benefits two years before any outlay definitely helped push the project forward,” she said. “It moved it up the ranking of other capital investments
we were considering, where cash flow is always a major consideration. It was always a viable scheme, but the financing helped improve its appeal.”

With funding, planning and preliminary work in place, the first upgrade on the turbines began in July 2019, just a year after the contract award. Combining the old with the new has been a fundamental part of the project. The Newcastle team for example is taking responsibility for the turbine’s complex pipework and electrical control system. In order to keep costs down, rather than invest in a new site-wide control system, Drax is buying part of a Siemens control module and plugging it into its existing system.

As engineering manager at Drax, Les Lemmon explained: “It’s a little like buying a Tesla and getting it to talk to an Austin Morris. We’ve bought a new, hi-tech control system that has to communicate with technology designed and built in the 1960s. That’s the really clever bit.”

The need for innovation, however, extends far beyond the control system: “That same innovative thinking has been required to get the barrel turbine to fit within the existing steelwork, and to modify the pipework from four pipes to two. The original solution lost quite a bit of efficiency, so we took it back to Siemens. They spent a lot of time on the redesign and we are pleased to say they’ve cracked it!”

Both businesses acknowledge that whilst the scale of the project has been one of the most extensive and complex they have been involved in, it has also been one of the most rewarding as they eagerly anticipate the first outage which will be the biggest ever undertaken at Drax. Fundamental to the project’s ongoing success, will continue to be the team’s transparency of communication, innovative thinking, development of bespoke technology and willingness to try the untried.