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National Grid asks ‘contingency’ coal plants to fire up as cold grips UK

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The UK electricity grid operator has instructed two emergency-use coal generators to start warming up as the network faces its first big test of the energy crisis, with demand across the country soaring as temperatures dip below zero.

The National Grid Electricity System Operator said on Monday morning that it had asked the “contingency” plants to prepare for operation “to give the public confidence” in energy supplies, adding that people should continue to “use energy as normal”.

The two Drax coal-fired generation units, which the government requested to be on standby this winter, may not be needed to supply power to the grid as soon as Monday, the operator said, but “they will be available to the ESO if required”.

It is the first time any of the standby coal units have been asked to warm up since the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy this summer asked to delay their closure until after winter to help reinforce the grid’s resilience.

The UK is historically a big importer of electricity from France, but maintenance issues with the fleet of French nuclear reactors have hit supplies this year and instead power has flowed the other way, though plants are slowly returning to service. Reduced French supplies have compounded an energy crisis triggered by Russia’s reduction of gas supplies to Europe in retaliation for western support for Ukraine.

The standby coal units are operating under so-called winter contingency contracts, so they cannot be bid on in the open market but can be asked to come online by the grid operator to relieve tight supplies.

The move comes as much of the UK is experiencing below-freezing temperatures for the first time this winter, with icy conditions across much of the country and London receiving a rare dusting of snow.

Weather conditions have also cut wind power generation, leaving the grid heavily reliant on gas-fired electricity and imports from continental Europe.

UK day-ahead electricity prices jumped on Sunday to help attract electricity imports through interconnectors from Europe, with record prices expected during the peak demand hours in the late afternoon and early evening on Monday.

On Monday natural gas was providing around 58 per cent of UK power generation compared with an average of 42 per cent over the past 12 months. Wind was at less than 4 per cent compared with about 28 per cent on average.

The two coal-fired plants could also help the British grid to export power to France, where analysts expect energy supplies to also be tight on Monday. National Grid ESO has previously committed to help supply neighbouring grids when possible this winter.

On Monday morning France posted a short-term emergency request to temporarily reduce electricity exports via the interconnectors to the UK, according to EnAppSys, an energy consultancy that monitors electricity flows.

But the UK grid operator has not triggered steps such as formally requesting large factories to reduce consumption. That suggests warming up the coal-fired standby units is a precautionary measure rather than a sign of an imminent risk of blackouts.

Thomas Edwards, a modeller at energy consultancy Cornwall Insight, said he expected that any power plant that could operate would be ready to come online. “Given the price I imagine most power stations are going to be warm and ready.”

Later on Monday the operator is planning a “test” of its so-called Demand Flexibility Service, which started in November and effectively pays participating businesses and households to reduce consumption during peak times.

Prices — and demand — are expected to peak at about 6pm in the UK, with people returning home from school and work while many offices, factories and shops are still open.

The two units are operated by Drax in North Yorkshire, home to the country’s largest power station. The company has converted much of the site to run on biomass and was due to shut its coal units this autumn before the government’s intervention.

The two coal-fired units are each capable of generating about 570 megawatts each, adding more than 1.1 gigawatts to the grid if utilised.

A notice from the ESO said the plants would be ready for dispatch for the grid if called upon from about lunchtime.

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