When coal power stops, how will Britain’s home fires keep burning? (The Times)

Tony Lodge, author of CPS report “The Great Green Hangover“, writes for The Times newspaper on coal and electricity shortages, Monday 7 December 2015. 

The last time Britain faced electricity rationing, Churchill was back as prime minister, the Korean War was raging and people were hoping that the Festival of Britain marked the end of postwar austerity. It was the early 1950s and Britain’s ageing prewar power stations were being asked to provide more and more power as homes switched to electric heating from solid fuels.

The solution was straightforward: a new nationalised electricity behemoth, the CEGB, built coal-fired and nuclear power stations. Ironically, this was criticised later because it produced too much electricity-generating capacity. In the early 1980s Britain had a power surplus of nearly 20 per cent, a position that ministers can only dream of today as margins drop below 1 per cent.

Fast-forward to next winter and the situation looks precarious. The government’s anti-coal policies look set to force the early closure of most of Britain’s remaining coal-fired power stations long before equivalent-sized replacements are ready. Ministers want to see gas-fired power plants replace coal by the mid-2020s but there is no strategy to deliver plant-for-plant replacements; instead, they seem happy to keep carbon taxes high to force out coal.

Research by the Centre for Policy Studies indicates that Britain hasn’t been more at risk of power cuts, shortages and price spikes for more than 60 years. There is a real risk that the available dispatchable electricity generating capacity — those supplies that are readily available when they are needed — will fall below likely demand, particularly in the winter of 2016-17. The available electricity capacity next April, after the early closure in March of three big coal plants, is calculated to be 52,360 megawatts. This contrasts with National Grid’s 2015-16 winter electricity demand forecast of 54,200MW.

Britain’s last deep coalmine, at Kellingley in North Yorkshire, will close this month. Sunk in the 1960s to supply new local power stations, it had pinned its hopes on carbon capture, but the government scotched that in the autumn statement.

Green taxes have nearly doubled since 2010, from £2.5 billion to more than £4.6 billion in 2016. In parallel, average household gas and electricity prices have risen by more than 25 per cent, or £251. Over the past ten years energy bills have risen by 131 per cent.

Wind, solar and biomass have all received generous subsidies — paid for largely out of household bills. However, the cheapest fuel available to generate electricity and diversify supply — coal — will soon be gone.

As we saw in the 1970s, failings in energy policy carry significant political, economic and social implications. Better policy is needed, and fast. Time is running out.

Date Added: Monday 7th December 2015