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  • February 14th, 2014

Renewable power is key as power plant closures spell shortages.

Britain’s electricity generating capacity at coal and nuclear power plants could be slashed by 75% in the next decade, according to a new report by energy data specialist.

The closure of coal and nuclear-fired plants would be responsible for this, the study said, and if this lost capacity is not replaced the country would lose capacity at plants that provided 41% of electricity generation in the UK last year.

It is estimatated that in the next ten years coal generation could fall as low as 8GW and nuclear generation to 1.3GW due to the closure of ageing power plants, a far cry from the combined 37.5GW of current capacity.

Tougher environmental laws and age are triggering the closure of these plants as operators find it increasingly difficult to meet strict emissions targets, while decommissioning looms for the majority of nuclear stations in the next 10 years.

Recent speculation that the UK government will announce a freeze on the carbon floor price – essentially a charge on emissions – could encourage some operators to continue running their coal plants. However, this alone will not solve the impending capacity crisis.

In the absence of significant build of electricity storage projects in the UK there must remain sufficient conventional capacity to provide power at times of system stress when levels of generation from renewable sources are low.

A significant upsurge in the number of conventional generating plants coming on stream will therefore be required in the next decade. Britain may need between 10 and 20GW of new capacity to meet demand with the consensus favouring gas-fired generation to plug the gap.

Existing gas-fired plants could cover around half of the generation shortfall should combined coal and nuclear capacities fall as predicted. However, the remaining shortfall must be met by new power plants if Britain’s ageing coal plants continue to close. A carbon floor price freeze, if it happens, may slow the rate of coal plant closures but new capacity will still be required.

Coal-fired stations face an uncertain future as carbon capture equipped coal-fired stations are still not commercially proven, while European environmental and emissions standards will make it difficult to upgrade current coal plants into cleaner alternatives and, politically, new build coal is a sensitive area despite its strategic benefits.

Due to the Large Combustion Plant Directive, power stations in Europe have to meet certain sulphur and nitrous oxide emissions standards or agree to close by 2015 or after 20,000 hours of generation, whichever occurs soonest. A combination of this directive and the carbon floor price has already resulted in the loss of 9.6GW of generating capacity in 2012 and 2013, with a further loss of 3.9GW expected by 2015.

By 2024 a second piece of legislation, the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), will have further reduced the number of ageing coal-fired plants propping up the British electricity markets. Recent announcements by SSE, EDF AND RWE further indicate that capacity reduction due to the IED will start long before 2024.

In addition, the decommissioning of ageing nuclear plants will further reduce Britain’s power-generating capability. The country’s nuclear fleet will consist of just one power plant from 2024, Sizewell B, with that remaining station due to decommission in 2035. However, it is hoped that Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C will have come online by then, providing a combined 6.4GW of extra capacity, but this is far from certain.

All of this points to an increased need for new generation capacity and the climate to make this happen sooner rather than later.

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