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Closure of UK coal and nuclear plants could cause major shortfall in electricity supply by 2025

26 January 2016

A report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) published on January 26 says the UK Government’s policy to close all coal-fired power stations by 2025, combined with the retirement of the majority of the country’s ageing nuclear fleet and growing electricity demand, will leave the UK facing an electricity supply gap of between 40 and 55% in ten years' time.

Ferrybridge C coal-fired power station
Ferrybridge C coal-fired power station

The Engineering the UK Electricity Gap report says plans to plug the gap by building Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) plants are unrealistic, as the UK would need to build about 30 new CCGT plants in less than ten years. The UK has built just four CCGTs in the last ten years, closed one, as well as eight other power stations.

In addition, in 2005, 20 nuclear sites were listed for decommissioning, leaving a significant gap to be filled. According to the report, the country has neither the resources nor enough people with the right skills to build this many power stations in time. It is already too late for any other nuclear reactors to be planned and built by the coal ‘shut-off’ target of 2025, other than Hinkley Point C.

The report also highlights that a greater reliance on interconnectors to import electricity from Europe and Scandinavia is likely to lead to higher electricity costs and less energy security.

Dr Jenifer Baxter, the Institution’s Head of Energy and Environment and Lead Author of the report said: “The UK is facing an electricity supply crisis. As the UK population rises and with the greater use of electricity in transport and heating, it looks almost certain that electricity demand is going to rise.

“However with little or no focus on reducing electricity demand, the retirement of the majority of the country’s ageing nuclear fleet, recent proposals to phase out coal-fired power by 2025 and the cut in renewable energy subsidies, the UK is on course to produce even less electricity than it does at the moment.

“We cannot rely on CCGTs alone to plug this gap, as we have neither the time, resources, nor enough people with the right skills to build sufficient power plants. Electricity imports will put the UK’s electricity supply at the mercy of the markets, weather and politics of other countries, making electricity less secure and less affordable.

“Currently there are insufficient incentives for companies to invest in any sort of electricity infrastructure or innovation. Under current policy, it is almost impossible for UK electricity demand to be met by 2025.

“Government needs to take urgent action to work with industry to create a clear pathway with timeframes and milestones for new electricity infrastructure to be built including fossil fuel plants, nuclear power, energy storage and combined heat and power. With CCS now out of the picture, new low carbon innovations must be supported over the course of the next ten years.

“We need to ensure we have the right skills and knowledge in place to enable this key infrastructure to be built. The UK National Infrastructure Commission must also take urgent action to prioritise greater energy efficiency by industry and clarify financial incentives for research and development of renewables, energy storage and combined heat and power.”

Many older coal plants were expected to close by the middle of next decade, but the operators of seven plants capable of generating a combined 13 gigawatts (GW) - or four times the planned Hinkley C nuclear project - have left the door open to keeping them running longer.

SSE, Drax, E.ON, EDF Energy, RWE and Engie all chose this month to put some of their coal plants into a government scheme which means they could be modified in due course to meet emissions targets under the EU's Industrial Emissions Directive (IED).

The Engineering the UK Electricity Gap report’s recommendations are:

*The UK’s National Infrastructure Commission should assess the necessary incentives for industry and the public to reduce the demand on the electricity system through engineering efficiencies into processes and equipment, awareness raising and advocacy.

*The UK’s National Infrastructure Commission must urgently implement the changes necessary across the industry and supply chain to deliver security of electricity supply with no coal-fired generation. These include investment in research and development activities for renewables, energy storage, combined heat and power and innovation in power station design and build.

*Collaboratively the UK Government and its delivery bodies, along with industry, should review the capacity in the supply chains to deliver the construction of the ‘most likely’ new power infrastructure. This includes identifying timeframes and milestones for conventional and unconventional power generation build (fossil fuel, nuclear, energy storage, combined heat and power and off-grid options) along with the growth in skills within the UK to meet potential demand.

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