Coal power plant from above

National Grid warms up three coal plants during cold snap

Image credit: Pexels

The UK's National Grid has asked Drax and EDF to start warming three coal power stations as sub-zero temperatures increase electricity demand.

Britain’s electricity generators have been forced to warm up coal-fired power stations for the second time this winter. 

The ESO (Electricity System Operator) branch of the National Grid said the three generators - two at Drax's site in North Yorkshire and one at West Burton in Lincolnshire - will not necessarily be needed, but that the instructions were given in preparation for tighter supply margins during the cold snap. 

The plants on standby were originally set for retirement, but their lives were extended through this winter in a bid to boost supplies amid energy security fears.

“Our forecasts show electricity supply margins are expected to be tighter than normal on Monday evening,” the ESO said. “We have instructed coal-fired power units to be available to increase electricity supplies should it be needed tomorrow evening.

"The ESO as a prudent system operator has these tools for additional contingency to operate the network as normal and the public should continue to use energy as normal."

In addition, National Grid is, for the first time, activating the "demand flexibility service (DFS)" between 5 and 6pm on Monday, January 23. 

This new service would allow the ESO to access additional flexibility by paying selected households to cut their electricity use, when national demand is at its highest during peak winter days, such as the coming week. 

The DFS is due to stay in place until March, with 26 energy suppliers including Octopus Energy and EDF signed up for it. Until now, the service has only been used in tests.

National Grid ESO added that its announcement should not be interpreted as a sign that electricity supplies are at risk and said “people should not be worried”.

“These are precautionary measures to maintain the buffer of spare capacity we need,” National Grid tweeted.

Last summer, the ESO negotiated a winter contingency contract with a number of coal generators at the request of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

“Overall, this is likely to be a challenging winter for energy supply throughout Europe. We have taken extensive measures to try to mitigate the impacts for British consumers and expect that, under our base case, margins will be adequate,” ESO said at the time.

The request to warm up coal power stations was given once before this winter. In December, the ESO took similar steps, although the extra power ended up not being needed. 

Coal is the most polluting type of fossil fuel, and has been broadly been phased out in the UK as it seeks to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. However, the energy shortages caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, have led energy producers to prepare for worst-case scenarios. 

"The energy crisis has uncovered the cracks in the UK’s energy infrastructure," said David Hall, VP of power systems at Schneider Electric UK&I. "ESOs have scrambled to forge a short-term plan to ease the threat of blackouts this winter, which will be activated for the first time tonight. However, this is merely a sticking plaster on an even bigger issue; an outdated energy system incapable of flexing to modern energy demands." 

"Harnessing a smarter grid would bolster our energy supply by creating cost-effective, resilient network efficiencies that protect consumers while incorporating a greater mix of renewable energy."

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. 

Despite this commitment, the UK government recently approved the opening of a new coking coal mine in Cumbria, prompting legal action from environmental campaigners. 

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