Britain’s electricity system operator has put two coal-fired power stations on emergency standby to keep the lights on amid a wave of cold weather.
The national grid electricity system operator (ESO) said the two “winter contingency coal units” will be available if needed on Monday as temperatures dip below freezing and demand soars. He said the public “should continue to use energy normally.”
This summer, the government asked owners of coal-fired power plants to delay closure plans as ministers sought to shore up power supplies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Previously, Russia was a big supplier of natural gas to Europe, so the invasion roiled global energy markets and sparked a scramble for alternatives.
Coal plants in North Yorkshire preparing to operate on Monday are owned by energy company Drax. They will only operate if told to by National Grid, and Drax will not be able to sell the electricity on the open market.
It comes after temperatures fell as low as -8.6C on Sunday in Marham, Norfolk, according to the Met Office. It had issued yellow weather warnings for snow or ice across much of the country on Monday morning, with snowfall causing travel disruptions in southeast England, including London, and northern Scotland.
Dropping temperatures sent UK energy prices to an all-time high on Sunday.
Britain’s electricity generation system has moved rapidly away from coal in recent years: its first coal-free day was achieved in 2017, while in 2020 the island was without coal-fired electricity for a month during a sunny May.
The use of non-carbon renewables has risen rapidly to replace it, but the UK has also increased its reliance on natural gas, a fossil fuel. That dependency proved problematic during 2022 after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Britain relied heavily on gas flaring for electricity generation over the weekend, with low winds and overcast skies. On Saturday gas generated 62% of the electricity in Britain, according to National Grid data. Nuclear power plants generated 14%, while wind and solar accounted for 8% and 1% respectively. Coal represented 4%. (Northern Ireland’s power system operates separately.)
National Grid ESO tried to emphasize that asking coal power plants to heat up did not mean it had any concerns about the blackouts on Monday.
“This move should give the public confidence in Monday’s power supply,” National Grid ESO said in a statement. “ESO, as a prudent system operator, has these additional contingency tools to operate the grid normally and the public must continue to use power normally.”