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Coal power stations refuse to provide emergency energy top-up next winter

March 16, 2023

By Paul Homewood


h/t Ian Magness




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."

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.

We have been sleepwalking into this for years. It is laughable for DESNZ to claim that our energy supplies are safe and secure, then in the next breath saying coal is needed as a contingency!


Closure of West Burton and Drax will lose 2.2GW of capacity. The former was called up by the grid just last week during the cold snap, even though it was a windy day. So far this winter, we have avoided a really windless, cold period, but the only solution the National Grid appears to have is to pay people not to use electricity.

That can never be a proper long term solution.

  1. Chris Phillips permalink
    March 16, 2023 10:41 am

    This may, unfortunately, be a good thing. By refusing to keep coal power stations on standby next Winter, the companies may precipitate electricity blackouts. Bad as these may be, they may be the only way the Govt, and indeed the Labour opposition, will be forced to accept the lunacy of the net zero policies.

    • Nicholas Lewis permalink
      March 16, 2023 7:27 pm

      Agree it needs a major blackout to expose what is actually happening here

  2. March 16, 2023 10:43 am

    DENZ isn’t that called an oxymoron

    • incywincysales permalink
      March 16, 2023 11:45 am

      You beat me to it…

      • Nigel Sherratt permalink
        March 16, 2023 11:59 am

        Public Health Emergency of International Concern is another good one. I think ‘they’ may be trolling us. SAGE, COBRA, the list goes on. My rule of thumb is any entity with a crap acronym is just that.

      • March 16, 2023 12:42 pm

        Best I ever saw was. NAZ, when I asked I was told it was the No Acronym Zone

  3. gezza1298 permalink
    March 16, 2023 10:52 am

    The energy shortage will come sooner or later. The sooner the better so that a start can be made on rectifying 20 years of stupidity but then we will have the same idiots in charge that created the problem and think more stationary windmills will help. Jo Nova has a nice graph of how prices rose soon after unreliables were added to the grid and of course they keep on rising. Their idiot, Bowen want more unreliables added too.

    • Ray Sanders permalink
      March 16, 2023 11:58 am

      The quirky thing is that all of the UK major blackouts of this century have occurred in either May (spring) or August (summer). The grid is actually at its most vulnerable not in winter from high demand but at times of year when solar and wind are providing a large simultaneous amount of demand.

      • gezza1298 permalink
        March 16, 2023 12:49 pm

        Yes, I would believe that as the late Booker referred to that very problem. And note that Drax intends to close down for maintenance during this period which may leave us more vulnerable to a failure.

    • Caro permalink
      March 16, 2023 4:22 pm

      The late Christopher Booker’s book ‘The Real Global Warming Disaster’ first alerted me to this nonsense.

  4. March 16, 2023 11:01 am

    We have been governed by idiots for 25 years, and crunch time nears. It’s a good job Ed Miliband will soon be in charge of keeping the lights on!

  5. Joe Public permalink
    March 16, 2023 11:07 am

    Place your bets when the headline “Britain blacked out. Coal plants failed to generate” will first appear!

    • gezza1298 permalink
      March 16, 2023 12:52 pm

      Yes, that it the tactic they used in Australia when a coal plant had trouble. But there was a good article recently pointing out that with generation income reduced by government policy maintenance would suffer cutbacks. So the government policy makes even reliable generation unreliable – quite an achievement.

      • March 16, 2023 6:53 pm

        I can’t see them getting away with that in the UK since nearly all of the coal plants have being demolished but I can see green activists trying to blame any blackouts on nuclear since I can see 1 of the AGR reactors breaking down this being the last straw for the grid and this being used to attack a new build nuclear program over wind & solar especially with the disaster that is the EPR that I would not be surprised if it turned out there were civil servants/politicians who selected the design deliberately suspecting it would be as farcical as Dungeness B to discredit nuclear over renewable.

  6. Gamecock permalink
    March 16, 2023 11:43 am

    Bizarro World.

    “We are going to end coal.”

    “Please don’t close yet. We promise not to kill you til next year.”

  7. Jack Broughton permalink
    March 16, 2023 11:52 am

    As we have closed most of our coal mining, the storage of coal fired stations is their main selling point. If there was sense among the politicos, we would be building new coal-fired stations, buying coal in, and storing it and thus have lower cost power (as Germany have done). However, there is another technical option, which is to convert the coal-fired boilers to burn oil which can be stored and needs less skilled staff for operation and maintenance: the de-sulphurising plant is already there. To appease the eco-nuts who have control over government, we could make them “hydrogen-ready”. This in conjunction with a set of OCGTs on each station would give great response and security.

    • Realist permalink
      March 16, 2023 4:56 pm

      We don’t want oil used for generating electricity. While it would work, oil has much better uses for the thousands of oil-based products and what is left as transport fuels.

      • It doesn't add up... permalink
        March 16, 2023 7:00 pm

        The oil that was used for electricity was mostly very heavy, viscous fuel oil that of itself was not fit for much other use – slow speed marine diesel engines could use some of it. Upgrading these residues to more usable products is expensive and energy intensive. It really only happens because otherwise the markets for them have been closed by regulation – i.e. the value would be negative in terms of disposal cost.

      • Ray Sanders permalink
        March 16, 2023 10:16 pm

        As IDAU points out most oil used for electricity generation (boilers with steam turbines) was Heavy Fuel Oil (Bunker C) and was pretty much useless for anything else.
        During the miner’s strike I was employed as a subbie at Littlebrook D trying to keep the thing going when being literally run at destruction levels. The volumes that were consumed were quite astronomical and actually moved global oil prices as this article highlights.

  8. ThinkingScientist permalink
    March 16, 2023 12:03 pm

    Chickens coming home to roost….and the moment a spokesperson for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero opens by saying:

    “Our energy supplies are safe and secure…”

    You can be pretty sure they are not. And if they are, why are they asking the coal fired power stations to stay open…yet again?

  9. Mad Mike permalink
    March 16, 2023 12:26 pm

    I smell a huge bribe, sorry, exceptional payment, coming coal’s way.

    I’ve been trying to think of a way of taking the governance of the Country away from politicians and allow them to posture and preen their feathers without interfering with the correct running of the country. Every time I come up with something a thing called democracy gets in the way. There’s always a snag I find.

    • gezza1298 permalink
      March 16, 2023 12:57 pm

      But introducing democracy would sort the problems out. Just because people vote here doesn’t mean we have any power. Although Switzerland is a quasi police state and seems to be home to a banking service for criminals – I suppose it has form on that – their referendum system gives the people their say on things. True there is one flaw where the vote might cause an economic collapse such as when they voted to end EU immigration. As the Swiss-EU agreement is all or nothing, the government had to ignore the result. If only they were in the EEA then they could have used Article 112 to stop it.

      • dave permalink
        March 17, 2023 11:01 am

        “…the government had to ignore the result…”

        It most certainly did not, and indeed could not, do this! Naturally, the Establishment dragged their feet as much as possible, since – like Blair and Brown, back in the day – they love ‘the reserve army of the unemployed’ idea, and are wedded to it as a cunning plan to keep their local plebs down.

        The government had three years to implement the result and after difficult negotiations with the EU (is there any other sort?)came up with a proposal which was put to the Swiss people – in 2020 – in a new referendum and accepted by 62% to 38%. Pity, in my opinion. But my opinion does not matter. If the majority are happy with 22% of the working population being foreign, and bound to rise to 50% within a generation, that is their joy or their funeral. I have Swiss relatives, by the way. I have not asked them what they think about the $54 billion dollars of their money being given today by this same Establishment to prop up Credit Suisse.

        Once upon a time Swiss Banks had hidden reserves, not hidden losses!

  10. It doesn't add up... permalink
    March 16, 2023 12:29 pm

    It’s not just coal capacity that is a problem. Kathryn Porter has an excellent detailed article reviewing the nuclear situation.

    We are also getting to the point where older gas stations may become less reliable, and some may close. Replacement capacity acquisition has been woeful, as the recent T-4 auction showed.

    • Ray Sanders permalink
      March 16, 2023 1:05 pm

      It’s worth noting that back in 2018 Dungeness B was granted a life extension to 2028 but effectively ended generation just two years later in 2020. I really would not have high expectations of life extensions actually happening other than the PWR at Sizewell B

      • March 16, 2023 7:22 pm

        Does anyone know what the plan is in Scotland without Torness?

        As that just leaves Peterhead as the only large dispatchable power station in mainland Scotland (I must be mistaken surely) which is an amazing accomplishment when it used to have dispatchable capacity x2 it simultaneous maximum load.
        As imports (which I suspect will have there own issues after Heysham 1 & 2 close). Then I would love to know what the SNP’s plan is in an independent Scotland?

    • gezza1298 permalink
      March 16, 2023 1:41 pm

      Why would anyone invest in building new gas generation when government policy stops you from making a return by putting you behind wind and solar generation in the call for power supply to the grid. Having used our money to prop up wind and solar, the government will have to use more of our money to support the gas back-up.

      • Gamecock permalink
        March 16, 2023 2:11 pm

        . . . and if your new gas generation makes money, the fine, fine government can conjure up an ex post facto “windfall tax” just to make sure you don’t make money.

  11. Chris permalink
    March 16, 2023 1:47 pm

    At 1pm on Thursday 16th of March, 19% of UK power demand was coming from Europe, which is a risk to the UK since Europe still relies on gas (20%) for generating capacity. There is talk of gas shortages next winter due to LNG supply and Germany has stated that they will build 21GW of new gas powered generating capacity this decade.

    It all points to possible power shortages in the future. It seems that the politicians will need another ‘winter of discontent’ to realise that renewables and sanctioning the major supplier of gas to Europe, is not a good plan.

  12. Mad Mike permalink
    March 16, 2023 2:17 pm

    It looks like the artic vortex influence is neutral to negative for the rest of March so temperatures should be at or slightly below average. Get March out of the way and the Grid might have escaped this year until the winter. At some point though the Government will have to take notice of the heads of the Grid who, to be fair, have said that there are problems ahead. At that point, the realisation that we will be in the do-do must get through to even our idiots and the objective of Net Zero will seem rather pointless. It will probably be too late to save the next couple of years or so but eventually reality will force a rapid return to reliables otherwise we are really doomed.

    Although it will bring back sanity quicker I reckon, I do hope that those predicting a return to a colder climate are wrong. I don’t want to shiver just to prove a point.

    • Ray Sanders permalink
      March 16, 2023 2:46 pm

      As I have posted upthread, most major UK power outages have occurred in spring and summer. When the grid is being mostly supplied by solar and wind, it is actually at its weakest (lack of inertia, poor frequency management, low short circuit level, limited reactive power control etc, etc) so that any sudden supply/demand variation can cause a cascading failure. An unpredicted outage (Sizewell B tripping out or an interconnector going down – both recent events) could well prove disastrous. Furthermore a sudden “contrived” and unpredicted demand increase could have an equally interesting effect.

    • It doesn't add up... permalink
      March 16, 2023 7:03 pm

      Don’t be too sure of that. We had capacity margin notices last summer because winds were slight and too much capacity was out for summer maintenance, including of course huge swathes of French nuclear. With the latest crack discoveries in France we could be back there again – see the article I linked above.

    • dave permalink
      March 17, 2023 8:11 am

      “I don’t want to shiver just to prove a point!”

      “I shivered to prove a point!” on a tombstone is right up there with “I told you I wasn’t well!”

      I think I opined six months ago that we would get through this winter with no actual interruptions to supply. Same goes for next winter, in my opinion. Not so sure about the one after that, though. I kind of hope for a 1962-3 winter, but probably I would not actually enjoy it.

      Shadenfreude is not a complete substitute for warmth.!

      • dave permalink
        March 17, 2023 12:03 pm

        As regards the vortex effect, the temperature in the far North has been quite low for the whole of the winter. It only spikes up when warmer air is pulled to the Pole to replace cold air spilling South because the vortex weakens. So we have been fortunate – this time – that this was not a feature of our winter weather.

  13. Sean Galbally permalink
    March 16, 2023 2:36 pm

    I do not blame them. Ill informed authorities tried to phase them out and now they are begging cap in hand. When will they realise that we need fossil fuels until we have viable alternatives. Just clean their emissions but do not blame the carbon dioxide produced it does not and cannot affect the climate. Carbon dioxide is a good gas and essential to life.

  14. Ray Sanders permalink
    March 16, 2023 3:00 pm

    Off topic but the BBC are at it again.
    “The heat generated by a washing-machine-sized data centre is being used to heat a Devon public swimming pool.”
    Really? “A washing machine sized data centre” that would be 600mm x 600mm x 840mm is going to heat a swimming pool that is 25m x 12.5m running from 800mm to 2.4m deep. What’s powering this washing-machine sized unit ?….a nuclear reactor?
    Anyone reading the article would assume this tiny alteration is capable of what the BBC are claiming. However if you check out the suppliers you also have to accommodate some other things ” In return we ask for space for containers and sufficient grid and internet connection.”
    Yep “containers” (plural) as in those things that rather large trucks haul!
    Are BBC reporters just plain stupid, are they trained in the art of deliberate deception or are there some “incentives” (the brown paper type) for such articles?

    • Ray Sanders permalink
      March 16, 2023 3:22 pm

      p.s. is it just me or….”By Zoe Kleinman Technology editor” – wouldn’t it be useful if a Technology editor had some vestige of a science, technology or engineering qualification rather than a 2:1 in English?

      • Mike Jackson permalink
        March 16, 2023 4:02 pm

        You don’t need an engineering qualification to cross out long words! 🤡

      • Caro permalink
        March 16, 2023 4:46 pm

        Good research – well let’s hope her grammar is correct.

      • Caro permalink
        March 16, 2023 5:09 pm

        Let’s hope her grammar is correct.

  15. Jack Broughton permalink
    March 16, 2023 3:59 pm

    Further to my earlier posting, it is worth noting that the USA is increasing the use of OCGTs to balance the grid. Their load factor is now over 20% according to the EIA. The UK should learn from this, as it is a simple quickly installed technology and good efficiency is possible by using aero-derived gas turbines. CCGTs were developed for high load factor operation not peak-lopping.

    • Ray Sanders permalink
      March 16, 2023 5:09 pm

      Indeed this has been my view for some time now. When the sh1t hits the fan the only quick option will be to repurpose old aero engines like this example.

      • FrostyOz permalink
        March 17, 2023 7:29 am

        OCGTs on trailers, and banks of containerised diesel generation flown or shipped in, have been the urgent solution in Australia for similar circumstances. Both the South Australian and Tasmanian governments did similar when they realised they were caught short for a season. South Australia because the coal plants called it a day and said they couldn’t continue to lose money, Tasmania because their hydro used a lot of its water to make renewable energy certificates just before a long drought.
        The rules were also changed to require plants to notify closure dates multiple years in advance.

      • dave permalink
        March 17, 2023 3:33 pm

        “…aero engines…”

        I fear this will only blow the shit around even more.

    • March 16, 2023 6:21 pm

      Does anyone know how easy would it be to increase the supply of kerosene to fuel these OCGT since the UK was importing refined oil products (and I suspect the USA will try to reduce exports of refined oil products to Europe to help replace what was coming from Russia going into an election year to reduce gasoline prices). Could we build/ expand refining capacity or would rationing e.g. to aviation be needed?

      • It doesn't add up... permalink
        March 16, 2023 7:41 pm

        We have long been short of middle distillate production relative to demand. We were importing about a quarter of our diesel from Russia, and another quarter from elsewhere before things blew up in the Ukraine. Kerosene production fell sharply when the kerosene oriented hydrocracker at Shellhaven was closed along with the refinery: it used to be the major supplier to LHR. Now we depend on imports.

        I note a large tanker of diesel just arrived from Kuwait into Milford Haven. I suspect that is the real deal, rather than a Russian re-load, as I can trace the loading back to the Shuaiba refinery.

    • Graeme No.3 permalink
      March 16, 2023 7:22 pm

      OCGTs used intermittently have an efficiency around 35% but if in ‘continuous’ running may get to 40% efficiency. CCGTs can reach 62% efficiency when run for long periods but that drops drastically when forced to cycle on/off. This is why the UK’s CCGT plants are ageing and not being replaced (not making enough money). German CCGT’s shut down because of uneconomic conditions (2 of the newest were dismantled and moved to countries not interested in Green policies).
      So those new plants in Germany will need to be OCGTs which use more fuel for the same electricity, so more fuel for the same output – higher cost and higher CO2 emissions. And higher maintenance costs.
      At least Germany has restarted 14 moth-balled coal-fired plants and is getting 33.3% of electricity from them (up from below 25%). I suggest that the UK stop blowing up old coal-fired plants and instead blow up the politicians who want to make the situation worse.

      • Jack Broughton permalink
        March 16, 2023 8:34 pm

        I fully agree that blowing up some of the politicos would benefit us all, but not too democratic: just jail them all or make them pay-back the damage caused!
        Regarding OCGTs, the efficiency is far higher than CCGTs at low load factor. We had designs for fast response, floating-pressure once-through boilers that were dropped for the simple “radiator” type that were developed and were preferable for the Heavy-Duty engines (that the UK government would not support, killing off another UK energy sector). This design is of course preferable when HFO fired (as was originally the intention).
        The OCGT can be dual-fuel fired using gas when available / economic; however, it is the storage of light oils that I believe would be most useful given the low level of security that threatens the grid now; with almost total dependence upon the weather gods, interconnectors and imported LNG.
        The last UK energy security report would have failed as a final year project, but gave the politicos a convenient cover-up!

      • Graeme No.3 permalink
        March 16, 2023 11:15 pm

        I think that we are confusing each other about terms. I was talking of the efficiency of fuel conversion where CCGTs are far better due to heat recovery and far better if allowed to run uninterrupted by political wishful thinking.
        OCGTs with fast start-up and shut down are more convenient when you have to backup unreliables.

  16. March 16, 2023 5:02 pm

    “Demand flexibility” is the Leftist term for long-term and continuous rationing of energy.

    • It doesn't add up... permalink
      March 16, 2023 7:52 pm

      I see that the CCC seem to think that no power for three weeks a year on average will be an acceptable future.

      • Dave Ward permalink
        March 16, 2023 9:19 pm

        Three weeks IN ONE GO would spell the end of the country as we know it. But even three weeks worth of cuts spread over an entire year is hardly satisfactory for a supposedly “developed” nation. But I’m sure that members of the CCC won’t suffer – they’ll no doubt have generators and plenty of fuel…

    • John Brown permalink
      March 17, 2023 5:02 pm

      The Net Zero Strategy (P19) says we will have “abundant, cheap, British renewables….and ensure reliable power is always there at the flick of a switch”. This has been removed from the “Mission Zero” review by Chris Skidmore, MP and replaced with “behaviour change” (P26).

      Neither the “Mission Zero”, nor any for the NG ESO FESs for 2035 or 2050 energy flow diagrams show any plans for grid scale storage although small amounts are mentioned in the “Key Statistics”.

      The CCC believe that 60% of net zero will be achieved through “behaviour change” (demand flexibility/destruction) and I believe this means when renewable energy is low the plan is for surge pricing followed by rationing/rolling blackouts all managed through individual smart meters. They made domestic trials this year to test the reaction.

      I can’t remember now where I read it but the NG are planning to go for a 2 week trial without the use of fossil fuels sometime in 2025.

  17. Nicholas Lewis permalink
    March 16, 2023 7:31 pm

    Money talks at the end of the day

  18. liardetg permalink
    March 16, 2023 8:44 pm

    Spinning grid inertia?

    • Ray sanders permalink
      March 16, 2023 9:59 pm

      “Spinning grid inertia?” There are 4 of these monsters (2 at Hinkley Point C and 2 at Sizewell C) under construction/planned, but they will not be online until way too late to be of any use.
      Mind you there is a hell of a lot of spinning inertia when you get one of these buggers running!

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