Coal plant in snowy weather

GB warms up two coal plants due to temperature drops

Image credit: Pixabay

Britain's electricity grid operator has asked two of its coal-fired power stations to start warming up in preparation for possible disruptions in the country's electricity supply caused by the freezing weather conditions.

Two coal plants have been put on standby in Britain in preparation for an increase in the energy demand as the UK cranks up the heating to stay warm. 

National Grid ESO said it had asked Drax, which owns Britain's biggest power station, to prepare two coal-fired units. The company will also continue testing its blackout prevention scheme, which offers discounts on bills for households who cut peak-time electricity use on Monday evening.

The ESO (electricity system operator) said the move means the coal-fired stations can be used as “tools for additional contingency” as needed to allow the network to run as usual, and stressed that people “should continue to use energy as normal”.

The announcement comes as the UK faces freezing temperatures and snow in many areas – ramping up demand for power at a time when supplies are tight.

As a consequence, Monday 12 December is set to create the highest electricity demand this year, whilst the lack of wind has reduced the amount of renewable energy available.

National Grid ESO said that the warming up of the units was only a preventative measure that "should give the public confidence in Monday's energy supply". The company has also encouraged people to not use "energy-hungry" devices - such as electric vehicles - during peak times, to avoid putting additional pressure on the energy grid. 

"We have asked the two coal plants to warm, which is putting them on standby in effect, in case we need to use them this evening," Jake Rigg, corporate affairs director for National Grid ESO told Sky News.

But "it is not a sign the lights are going to go out, so we are really reassuring on that," he added.

The UK receives electricity via subsea cables from European countries including France, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands, but higher demand in Europe could potentially disrupt supplies to the UK and would trigger the need for coal-generated energy.

In October, the operator warned there was a risk of blackouts over the winter months as a last resort if energy supplies reach low levels.

On Monday, Fintan Slye, executive director of National Grid ESO, told the BBC that power outages were "still a possibility", but said the network operators remained "cautiously optimistic through the winter that we will be able to manage it".

"We have enough supplies secured through the rest of the day that we can manage that and ensure there's no disruption to customers' supplies," he added. 

The grid expects that the coal-fired stations will be ready for use if called upon for the evening between 5pm and 9pm, when demand is set to peak.

The stations are operated by Drax in North Yorkshire and are two of five put on standby under so-called winter contingency contracts, with others run by EDF and Uniper. The two units are each said to be capable of generating around 570 megawatts – adding more than 1.1 gigawatts to the grid if used.

Last year, Drax announced plans to drop its remaining coal-fired generators in 2021 after 50 years in operation as part of efforts to lower its carbon emissions. However, the company delayed the closures in September due to the current energy crisis and the fragility of the UK’s electricity supplies. 

In May 2022, the G7 nations pledged to significantly curb the use of coal and other fossil fuels in electricity production, following the European Union’s decision to find new energy sources and cut its reliance on Russian oil and gas as a response to the invasion of Ukraine.

With coal typically being the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel used for electricity generation, the UK is already planning to close all power plants that use it by 2024 as part of its efforts to meet its climate target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

Last week, Levelling-Up Secretary Michael Gove approved the opening of a new coking coal mine in Cumbria after months of objections from environmental campaigners, though that is primarily intended to supply steel producers rather than power stations.

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