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Energy firms asked to keep burning coal as ministers fight to keep lights on

·3-min read
A car drives past the Drax Power Station, illuminated in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, in North Yorkshire, Britain April 1, 2022. - LEE SMITH/ REUTERS
A car drives past the Drax Power Station, illuminated in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, in North Yorkshire, Britain April 1, 2022. - LEE SMITH/ REUTERS

Coal-fired power stations have been asked to stay open for longer as part of Government plans to avert an energy crunch amid Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, has written to the owners of Britain’s three remaining coal-fired power plants to ask them to explore keeping turbines running next winter. The turbines were due to close this September.

It marks a significant change of tone towards the heavily polluting fuel source which is due to be phased out from UK power stations by 2024 in line with the UK’s push to slash carbon emissions.

That timeline remains in place, but the request highlights the potential threat to the UK’s energy market from Russia’s war on Ukraine, as disruption pushes up the price of natural gas which is used to produce more than one third of UK power.

In a letter to coal-fired power station owners EDF, Uniper and Drax at the start of April, Mr Kwarteng said: “The UK is in no way dependent on gas from Russia, however I am mindful that a shortage of gas in Europe could put significant pressure on the European gas market.

“We will of course therefore take all prudent steps to be ready to support National Grid Electricity System Operator in delivering our energy security. Maintaining our remaining coal-fired power stations would provide us with additional backup security while we pursue more enduring solutions.”

In the long-term the country must move to cleaner energy, he added, but the “transition has to be orderly, recognising the critical role fossil fuels will play as we deploy low carbon alternatives”.

Wholesale gas prices leapt 18pc on Wednesday as Russia cut off supplies to Bulgaria and Poland, in a significant escalation of tensions. The UK gets less than 4pc of its gas directly from Russia but prices track those on the continent, which is heavily reliant.

The coal plants would be used for back-up power rather than run all of the time. Companies would be paid to agree to be on standby, likely through charges which end up on customers' bills, in keeping with the general arrangements for power stations on standby.

The window for winning contracts to be on standby for this winter has formally ended, so they will need to come to a special arrangement with National Grid.

Buying coal to run the turbines may also be another hurdle. Russia has typically been a large supplier of coal but these supplies are being shunned due to its war.

Coal provides less than 2pc of British power over the latest year, having been largely replaced by wind, biomass, gas and solar power in the push to cut emissions.

Drax and EDF were both due to shut down their remaining coal-fired turbines this year, while Uniper was due to shut one of its four turbines running this year and keep the other three running to 2024. The plants are in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire.

EDF said many processes have already been put in place to close West Burton A, including reducing the site’s staffing numbers and running down the coal stock.

It added: “EDF has recently been asked by the UK Government to consider what it would take to make West Burton A available next winter and this remains under discussion. A decision would be necessary in the coming weeks to enable this to happen.”

Uniper said: "We can confirm that Uniper has been asked by the Government to explore the possibility of keeping the unit at Ratcliffe power station, due to close in September 2022, open for longer. We cannot comment further at this time."

Drax said: “Drax remains committed to supporting security of supply in the UK. Drax has recently been asked by the UK Government to consider options for a limited extension of its coal operations and this remains under review.”