Companies running the UK’s three remaining coal-fired power stations have told Sky News that they will not be able to commit to new emergency power contracts next winter, despite a government request to do so.
The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero has asked the National Grid to extend this winter’s contingency coal contracts through to the end of next winter.
Coal provides a tiny proportion of the UK’s electricity – just 2% – but it remains a critical tool for the National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO), which is responsible for keeping the lights on.
One energy analyst said we are “sleepwalking into a capacity crunch”.
At the moment five coal units in three power stations are on standby to help avoid blackouts on very cold, very still days where wind power is limited; Drax, EDF’s West Burton A and Uniper’s Ratcliffe.
West Burton was fired up earlier this month during a cold snap when the National Grid became concerned that demand would outstrip supply.
But Drax and EDF have told Sky News that the arrangement cannot continue beyond this year.
In a statement, a Drax spokesperson said: “At the request of the UK government, Drax agreed to temporarily delay the planned closure of its two coal-fired units to help bolster the UK’s energy security this winter. Our coal units will close in March 2023 when this agreement comes to an end.
“The extension was a complex staffing, logistical and engineering project after a significant reorganisation of the power station was already completed to bring almost 50 years of coal-fired generation to an end.
“With two major maintenance outages planned on our biomass units this summer, and a number of certifications expiring on the coal-fired units, the units would not be able to operate compliantly for winter 2023.”
A spokesperson for EDF said: “The two remaining units at West Burton A coal-fired power station in Nottinghamshire will close as planned on 31 March 2023, in line with the agreement signed last year. The station and its workforce have fulfilled the request to have 400MW available through winter ’22/23 as an emergency standby option.
“There are a number of workforce and operational reasons that mean extending the life of West Burton A again is very challenging.
“For example, retaining suitably qualified and local personnel to ensure safe operation was a major challenge last year and, looking forward, becomes untenable as many of the workforce have stayed on well beyond planned retirement dates already.”
Uniper, which runs the Ratcliffe power station, has said that all four of its units, one of which is currently on standby for emergency purposes, have already entered into commercial contracts for next winter.
In a statement, a spokesperson said: “Uniper’s Ratcliffe power station already has capacity market agreements in place for all four units for winter 23/24, so would not be part of a separate winter contingency contract for this period.”
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A spokesperson for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero said: “Our energy supplies are safe and secure, but like last year we are exploring options to keep remaining coal-fired power stations available to provide additional back-up electricity if needed this coming winter as a contingency measure.
“Going above and beyond to ensure there are no issues next winter, we’ve written to ESO to request that they start the negotiations.
“Ultimately, the decision will be a commercial one for the coal generators and ESO will update the market in due course.”
Kathryn Porter, an energy analyst from the Watt-Logic energy consultancy, said: “The potential loss of the coal contingency is bad news for next winter.
“We have been sleepwalking into a capacity crunch. The combination of nuclear and coal closures in recent years making us vulnerable to the weather [and] in low wind conditions we are finding it increasingly difficult to meet demand.”
As well as using coal to boost supplies in an emergency, National Grid has been experimenting with paying customers to reduce demand during peak hours when margins are tight.
The lack of emergency coal on standby next winter might mean that the grid’s demand flexibility service is expanded or more heavily relied upon in order to avoid blackouts.