National Grid stands down coal power plants readied to help France

1 month ago

Grid has stood down coal-fired power stations that had been instructed to warm up on Thursday after France’s network operator sounded the alarm over the impact of strike action.

Two units at Drax in Yorkshire and one at West Burton in Nottinghamshire were asked to fire up just before midnight on Wednesday. The West Burton unit was stood down at 5.13am, and the Drax units were later also informed they would not be called into action.

It was the third time in a week that the Grid’s Electricity Supply Operator (ESO) had asked coal-fired stations to warm up in case they were necessary. The units have been placed on standby as a contingency plan amid fears over blackouts this winter.

Grid has been active in balancing the UK’s energy supplies in recent days as it copes with colder, less windy weather, which pushes up energy use and causes power generation from wind to drop.

However, the ESO said the latest warm-up instruction was not a response to the recent UK cold snap. Instead it came after the French grid operator RTE said assistance may be required after it was informed of strike action affecting electricity generation on Thursday that “could place their network in an alert status”. It was later decided they were no longer needed “following analysis of network margins”.

Britain’s electricity supplies are connected to France through subsea interconnector cables, which allow power to flow between the countries when there is demand. The ESO said the coal plants would have been available to help generate power for France only if they were not needed to prevent power cuts in Great Britain.

Grid has also been running its demand flexibility service for the first time this month outside trials. The service involves energy suppliers paying some households with smart meters for energy reductions, helping to reduce peak demand, which means it has less need to draw on more polluting energy sources when energy use rises in the evenings. Some businesses were already paid to reduce energy use.

In total, Grid is expected to pay just over £3m to suppliers for the service on two days this week, with about £850,000 on Monday and £2.1m for the longer session on Tuesday.

In the future, the service is likely to be much more widespread and electric cars and home batteries will play an increasing role in balancing the grid.

Drax, the owner of the Yorkshire units, and West Burton, which is owned by France’s EDF, agreed in the summer to extend the lives of their coal-fired generation units through the winter in exchange for fees as the UK government looked to shore up energy supplies after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The two plants had been due to close their coal operations in the autumn to reduce use of the more polluting fuel, but Drax and EDF agreed to keep them open until at least March if needed by Grid.

An ESO spokesperson said: “In support of mutual co-operation between Great Britain and its neighbouring electricity networks the ESO answered France’s request for additional GB generation to be able to provide assistance today if required by warming the contingency coal units.

“The ESO was able to take this action to support the French network in avoiding consumer disconnections, as the GB network is currently operating as normal and this action would not have placed GB consumers at risk. Following further assessment of network margins in both countries the ESO has now stood down these coal units.”

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