The UK has been forced to rely on coal power to keep the lights on, as there has been a reduction in electricity generated by wind farms.
National Grid ESO has confirmed that in recent weeks coal has been providing 3% of the total electricity needed. This is largely due to unusually calm and warm weather, meaning wind turbines haven’t been turning at the normal rate we may expect at the end of August.
The use of coal power has been gradually reducing in the UK, leading to a record breaking coal-free run in 2020. During the first lockdown, the UK enjoyed 67 days, 22 hours and 55 minutes without coal power, but since the unlocking, it hasn’t been able to replicate that success.
In fact, over the past year, the use of coal power plants to provide electricity has been all over the place. According to Drax Energy Insights, it peaked in January when it provided 5.63% of all electricity on the grid, although since the end of August it has once again been steadily climbing.
To put this into perspective, coal was providing just 0.55% of power on August 23, which had risen to 1.69% on September 5, with the rate now standing at 3.74%. There’s no word on when coal power usage will peak, but with the UK currently experiencing a heat wave, it’s possible that coal could make up even more of the power generated over the coming days.
To ensure the UK doesn’t experience a power outage, National Grid ESO has asked EDF to fire up West Burton A, a coal-fired power station.
In just three years, National Grid ESO may not have coal-fired power stations to fall back on. That’s because the company has joined with the UK Government in committing to phase out coal completely by 2024 to cut carbon emissions.
So, with a lack of coal, what is the UK Government to do in the future? Well, the hope is that there are more diverse renewables online that can deal with a drop in wind. That could be more solar farms, such as the 350 MW farm that has been approved in Kent, as well as hydroelectric and energy storage facilities. The UK could also utilise more clean power from overseas through the use of new interconnectors.
However, National Grid ESO could also opt for more electricity from gas-fired power stations. Technically it could do that now, but with global shortages of gas leading to high prices, the organisation chose the more economical option – coal. In the future it may take the hit and simply pass on the cost to consumers.
A National Grid spokesman commented, “In balancing the electricity system, we take actions in economical order and not on the basis of generation type.
“Depending on system conditions, some power sources may be better at meeting a balancing requirement than others – so the most cost-effective solution to ensure safe, secure system operation will be sought.”