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Fears of lights going out played down amid closures of coal-fired power plants

Published 30/03/2016

Eggborough was set to close before securing a contract with the National Grid
Eggborough was set to close before securing a contract with the National Grid

Experts have played down the chances the lights could go out this winter, as a series of coal fired power plants close.

But they warned the Government did not have a coherent strategy to shift the UK away from coal to a low-carbon energy system.

Longannet coal plant in Scotland and Ferrybridge in West Yorkshire ceased operations last week as costs, a shift to a cleaner energy mix and low electricity prices increasingly make ageing coal power stations unprofitable.

Three out of four units at Fiddlers Ferry power station, Cheshire, were expected to shut down but owners SSE said it was keeping them online after securing a one-year contract for "ancillary services" from National Grid.

Eggborough power station in East Yorkshire was also set to close, but secured a contract with National Grid to provide extra capacity during this winter from two of its four units.

Rugeley coal plant in Staffordshire is expected to shut down in early summer, meaning significant amounts of capacity will be lost.

Excluding Fiddler's Ferry power station, the closures total some 6.4 gigawatts (GW) of power generation, although a little under 1GW of that still be available from Eggborough with its capacity contract with National Grid.

Margins between peak electricity demand and the amount of power generation will be very tight in the coming winter, it is being warned.

Michael Grubb, professor of energy and climate change policy at University College London, said: "The system has the greatest risk of supply stress this winter.

"I don't think the lights will go out for any domestic consumers, but there are other things that may have to be done."

Businesses could be asked to turn down demand for a few hours or subsea cables known as interconnectors could ramp up imports of power from the continent.

From next winter, additional measures such as payments for capacity to be on the system, more interconnectors with Europe, and more development of schemes which manage demand would increasingly be available.

"If we get through this current winter without any wobbles we'll be in a much better position, but I'd describe this winter as potential wobbles rather than lights out."

The risk of the lights going out for households was "extremely low", with a 99% chance they would not, he suggested

Paul Massara, former chief executive of RWE npower, said he believed the crunch would go on for three or four winters.

"I think we're in a prolonged period of times where it looks more risky. Do I think the lights are going to go out? No I don't," he said.

He said the shift away from coal was the right thing to do to tackle climate change, with the Government setting out plans for all polluting coal plants to close by 2025, if new gas plants are built to replace them.

But he warned the Government would need to find new ways to fund the building of new gas power plants, as there was no incentive to build them when electricity prices were low and the world was shifting away from all fossil fuels in the long term.

And he said: "We need a vision, we need a strategy which sets out what a low carbon economy will look like.

"The great thing is with batteries, with solar, with onshore wind, and maybe offshore wind, you can actually get a secure system that is low carbon and cheap.

"The trouble is we haven't got a strategy that is getting us there."

"You're going to need a bridge factor, and the bridge factor is gas," he said, adding that measures in other sectors, such as switching to electric vehicles could help meet targets to cut carbon while still relying on gas power during the transition."

Greenpeace UK chief scientist Dr Doug Parr said: "The global coal industry has fallen into an irreversible spiral of decline, and our political leaders' job is to manage this decline as best as they can.

"The UK Government has taken the right approach by announcing a coal phase-out, but they forgot about the other half of the job.

"What Britain badly needs are clear, robust policies to drive more investment in clean energy and power-saving technologies.

"What we have instead is a random collection of pet projects like the Hinkley nuclear reactor and fracking that are going nowhere, with highly polluting diesel farms thrown in to plug the gap."

Rebecca Williams, energy and climate specialist at WWF-UK, said of the closures: "While these power stations have served the nation for many years, the world is moving forward to cleaner, cheaper forms of renewable energy generation.

"This is good news for the climate and good news for people's health - coal power in the UK is responsible for 1600 premature deaths a year."

She said the Government needed to set out a clear plan for the electricity sector, concentrating on renewables, measures which reduce and manage demand, and electricity storage.

A Department of Energy and Climate Change spokeswoman said: "We are clear that providing a secure supply of affordable energy for our families and businesses is non-negotiable.

"That is why we recently announced reforms to the capacity market mechanism to ensure it remains fit for the purpose of bringing forward the replacement capacity we need as older less efficient plants close."

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