The National Grid has warned that the UK’s electricity capacity will be at a seven-year low this winter, after a string of power plant closures and breakdowns.
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Though the national energy operator stressed that blackouts are unlikely, spare electricity capacity will run at around 4% this winter – down from 5% the year before and 17% three years ago.
This follows the planned closure of some plants and the unexpected breakdown of others, while some new facilities have failed to come online fast enough to replace them. Overall, the UK will go into the winter with less nuclear and coal-fired capacity than usual.
“The plant retirement rate has simply outrun the replacement rate. That we are even talking about the possibility of blackouts is in itself a massive policy failure,” said Institute of Directors (IOD) energy policy advisor Dan Lewis.
“If energy policy was as good at building power stations as it has been at closing them, we would not be facing the risk of targeted blackouts this winter.”
However, the National Grid’s 2014/15 Winter Outlook insists that there is little chance of shortages in the colder months. To extend the margin, the Grid is in negotiations with three power stations to provide an extra 1.1GW of reserve power, while businesses will be offered financial incentives to cut power at peak times.
“The electricity margin has decreased compared to recent years, but the outlook remains manageable and well within the reliability standard set by government,” said Cordi O’Hara, National Grid’s director of market operations.
“We will continue to keep a close watching brief across both electricity and gas throughout the winter so that we’re strongly placed to respond to any unanticipated events.”
The report should calm the fears of some critics, who argued that the UK was wrong to close its old, inefficient and polluting power plants. In order to help secure supply in the long term, campaigners and experts have called for the UK to do more to embrace the benefits of improved energy efficiency – which is already driving down demand.
“The events of the last few months show that no form of power station is completely reliable, whether it’s gas-fired, coal-fired or nuclear,” said Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.
“But just building more power stations would add to people’s bills. So the future for Britain has to lie in an efficient, flexible grid, making more use of demand management and interconnections with Europe to even out peaks and troughs and cope with unexpected failures.
“Policy needs to prioritise options that boost our energy security, keep bills low and combat climate change – and reducing energy waste is clearly a no-brainer.”
Jenny Banks, energy and climate change specialist at WWF, added, “We absolutely need to meet the security of supply challenge but current plans to give hand outs to creaking old coal and nuclear plants which are increasingly unreliable and clearly well past their prime are not a long term solution, but a sticking plaster.”
Photo: Ewan Munro via Flickr