UK power provider Drax has announced that it could keep its coal-fired power stations in operation beyond their planned closure date of next year due to the energy crisis gripping Europe. Drax’s chief executive Will Gardiner stated that the UK is likely to face a “tough winter” if temperatures are colder than the average.
He went on to state that Drax’s last remaining coal units would be ready to help balance a grid that has been under increasing supply pressure.
This comes as British gas and electric prices have surged to record highs due to fears that Europe faces extremely tight natural gas supplies during the winter months. The UK is heavily reliant on European supplies of natural gas for almost all its heating and over 50% of its power generation.
Drax stopped short of saying that it would run its coal fired stations at full capacity during the winter but indicated an openness to ramp up production if directed by the government.
“If the government wants us to rethink our plans, we need to talk to them in the next few months,” Gardiner said in an interview with the Financial Times.
These shortages have come at an inopportune time for the UK, as it prepares to host the COP26 summit in November. The decision to extend the life of coal power past its cut-off date would be a highly dubious decision given recent comments by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who stated the UK needs “every other country to follow its lead and commit to net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century”.
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The UK had targeted a complete phaseout of coal-fired energy by 2024 and was expected to hit this target within the next 2 years. However, this crisis puts greater pressure on the government to find other flows of energy production to fill the gaps caused by this shortage.
The country’s energy regulator, Ofgem, and Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng warned parliament this week that soaring gas prices would force more suppliers out of business and that the industry should prepare for a tougher environment.
Drax had planned to fully shut its two remaining coal plants in September 2022 and convert them to biomass. The plants have already been called back into action in the past two weeks to help plug a supply gap.
The North Yorkshire-based power station has switched the majority of its units to burning wood pellets that Drax says are carbon neutral. The coal units, in northern England, only generated 3% of the company’s electricity supplies in 2019 but have been kept in reserve to meet swings in demand.
Drax had aligned itself with the UK Government’s plans to decarbonise the country’s economy, stating in 2019 that it hoped to become a “carbon-negative” company by 2030 by capturing carbon from the biomass it burns.