UK Won't Keep Contingency Coal-Fired Units Online

The UK’s national grid operator has said that the country will not utilize coal-fired power generation even if needed this coming winter, issuing a statement on June 28 that said operators of possible contingency plants will not have them ready for service.

The National Grid Electricity Systems Operator (ESO) earlier this month in its early winter outlook report said it continued to talk with power generators EDF and Drax about keeping coal-fired units on standby. The ESO on Wednesday, though, in a statement said, “At the request of government in March 2023, the ESO has undertaken discussions with the operators of two winter 2022/23 contingency coal plants to establish whether these arrangements could be extended for a further winter. These discussions have now concluded. Both operators have confirmed that they will not be able to make their coal units available for a further winter and have begun the decommissioning process.”

The UK kept five coal-fired contingency units on call this past winter due to energy impacts from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The units were pressed into service in March of this year during a prolonged period of cold temperatures. The ESO said it cost about £400 million ($500 million) to keep the power plants on standby during the past winter.

UK officials have said the government wants all coal-fired generation units shuttered by October 2024 as part of its strategy to curtail greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector and combat climate change. At present, only one coal-fired power plant—Uniper’s Ratcliffe-on-Soar station in Nottinghamshire—remains in service. That 2-GW station has what’s known as a capacity market contract, meaning it would supply electricity to the grid as would any other power station. The power plant is scheduled for retirement in September 2024.

Two units at EDF’s West Burton A power plant, which were available last winter, have been closed. Officials said two units at the Drax facility are preparing for decommissioning. Drax officials in a statement said “a combination of technical, maintenance and staffing reasons” were behind its decision not to keep the two units open.

The ESO in its report said it expects to have enough electricity to meet demand, writing that “We expect there to be sufficient operational surplus in our base case throughout winter.” Officials also had said it was “prudent to maintain” the ESO’s demand flexibility service, or DFS, which was introduced last year. The DFS was activated for the first time in January of this year. The program includes volunteer households who are paid to reduce their electricity use at times of peak demand for power.

UK officials have said they will continue to import electricity from other countries in the North Sea region during winter. European officials were concerned about the lack of natural gas supplies from Russia due to the conflict with Ukraine, but the winter of 2022/23 was relatively mild, and European countries actually ended last winter with a record amount of natural gas in storage.

Analysts have said electricity costs for UK consumers are likely to rise this winter as power demand spikes, even with sufficient supplies of electricity and natural gas. UK’s government has established a cap on energy prices, which takes effect again in July, to limit costs for consumers.

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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