Cold Weather, Wind Not Blowing Sees UK Bring Coal Power Plants Back Online

A view of the cooling towers of the Drax coal-fired power station near Selby, northern England on September 25, 2015. Energy company Drax has abandoned a 1 billion GBP installation of carbon capture technology to cut emissions, citing the UK government's reduction of subsidies for renewable energy. AFP PHOTO / …
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The United Kingdom is presently calm, cloudy, and cold, leaving the burning of natural gas picking up the slack for becalmed ‘renewable’ generation, and even coal-fired power plants saved from being decommissioned this winter ordered back online to keep the lights on.

Three coal-fired power plants, two at Drax in Yorkshire and one at West Burton in Lincolnshire, were ordered to make themselves ready for use in the early hours of Sunday morning as a cold snap — predictable for winter, perhaps — combined with short cloudy days and very little wind sees solar and turbines producing little energy.

The National Grid made the announcement at gone four o’clock Sunday morning, saying warming up three “winter contingency coal units”, as they call them, “should give the public confidence in Monday’s energy supply”, strongly implying the Grid predicted possible shortages to come tomorrow had that extra capacity not be there to call upon.

Open source data from the grid shows the “Start-Up” orders to the three stations at Drax and West Burton were made over the course of four minutes in the three o’clock hour this morning. The Grid emphasised that while they had ordered the plants to stand up, this didn’t guarantee they were actually going to be used, calling them an “additional contingency”.

The Grid’s publications on power underline the dramatic impact the weather can have on generation in the United Kingdom, where there has been a concerted push under the long-lived Conservative government to move away from traditional power sources towards ‘green’ alternatives.

One week ago, for instance, while the UK was being hit by storms and the wind was blowing strongly, wind turbines were providing 57.6 per cent of the nation’s electricity, with gas at 9.3 per cent. Yesterday, with the wind becalmed, wind accounted for 25 per cent, with gas picking up a considerably higher 44 per cent. Solar was low in both cases, and even in July, the UK’s sunniest month, it only generally accounts for less than seven per cent of supply.

The order by the Grid to bring the three coal plants back online is particularly striking given they were all meant to have been permanently decommissioned — that is to say, disconnected, disassembled, and even demolished — by now. The United Kingdom government has been pursuing an aggressive policy of removing coal from its national coal generation mix, and all three plants activated today were meant to be shut down forever by September last year.

Yet the invasion of Ukraine by Russia a year ago appears to have reminded some in Whitehall that having a blend of different power sources to fall back on can be a blessing when the main heavy-lifters — in the UK’s case, gas and wind — both fail to deliver at the same time. The government put out a call for coal plants heading for the planned end of their lives to extend their service to March 2023 during the Summer.

Among them were Drax and West Burton. As the operators of Drax said of the agreement to keep the power station maintained but not generating just in case through this winter in at the time: “At the request of the UK Government, Drax has agreed to delay the planned closure of its two coal-fired units and help bolster the UK’s energy security this winter”. The group said they would source 400,000 tonnes of additional coal to hold one terawatt of electricity generation in reserve at their plant for this winter, underlining a key strategic benefit of coal, the ease of energy storage.

Despite the experience of this winter that unexpected energy shortages can happen and having a handful of coal plants on long-term standby can be a valuable fallback, the plants being started up again today to possibly keep the lights on tomorrow are all still due to be decommissioned in March 2023. Whether energy generators themselves believe this is a good idea or not is unclear, especially given how just today the National Grid called having coal as a contingency backup “prudent”. Breitbart London has contacted the National Grid for comment.

Legacy reports from the last decade outline the UK Conservative government’s longstanding desire to put the last coal-fired generator out of business by 2025 through carbon taxes, but also note how the government inserted an uncharacteristically longsighted clause into plans as far back as 2018 to retain powers to bring back coal in “emergency situations”, just as it has been today. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said in 2018, per The Guardian: “We consider it prudent for the secretary of state to retain provisions to act in emergency situations, as a last resort, where there might be a shortfall in electricity generation, or risk of one, and that suspension would wholly or partially mitigate that risk.”

There has been considerable concern over the past year about the possibility of energy shortages in the United Kingdom and mainland Europe this winter triggered by the war in Ukraine. In Britain, emergency plans to deal with possible shortages of energy are in place, with the National Grid noting in October that: “due to the war in Ukraine and gas shortages in Europe, there is a significant risk that gas shortages could occur during the winter 2022/23 in Great Britain”.

In case of shortages, the Grid said there would be a public awareness campaign to persuade Britons to use less energy using radio, television, social media, posters, and even leaflet drops. Should that not have enough of an impact, the Grid would appeal to the public to “stop using gas” completely. But hope may be on the horizon: while there have been typical cold periods this winter, a lot has also been more mild than normal, allowing energy companies to bank up reserves of natural gas. This, it is claimed — alongside hoped-for deliveries of liquid natural gas by sea through the season — may see the UK through the winter without blackouts.

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