Cottam closure to take UK coal power plant count down to six

  • Feb 07, 2019
  • Business Green

The number of operational coal-fired power stations in the UK is set to fall further with the news today EDF Energy is to close its 2GW Cottam coal power plant in September.

EDF said "challenging market conditions" were to blame for the decision, citing the on-going drive to decarbonise the UK's power grid. The government has promised to end the use of unabated coal-fired generation in the UK by 2025 and has introduced a carbon price floor in addition to the EU's emissions trading scheme which has driven up costs for coal generators at the same time as renewables costs have fallen sharply.

"We are conscious of the need to support a just transition to a low carbon energy system," said plant manager Andy Powell. "Our ambition is to close the station safely and responsibly by managing people and the environment properly and continuing to be a good neighbour."

The decision will leave Britain with just six operating coal power plants by the end of the year, with most energy companies now pivoting to ramp up investment in renewable power generation instead.

But while coal's demise in the UK's electricity system is all but sealed, the future of gas generation is still uncertain.

The government envisages retaining a fleet of gas power plants into the 2030s and for years ministers have been championing the development of a domestic shale gas industry, despite fierce local opposition to drilling and protests from environmentalists, who argue the creation of a UK fracking industry is incompatible with the UK's climate targets.

However, while continuing to support the development of fracking projects in principle, the government reiterated again this week that it was now planning relax rules governing earth tremors, which fracking firms say are hampering the development of test wells.

Fracking firm Cuadrilla has been forced to repeatedly halt its exploration activities near Blackpool because of tremors sparked by its drilling, and has warned commercial extraction will be unviable with the current rules in place.

Jim Ratcliffe, CEO of oil giant Ineos, urged the government last week to review the rules to allow fracking activity to continue beyond tremors of 0.5 magnitude, which marks the current limit.

But despite industry pressure the government is refusing to budge, with the Guardian today reporting a statement from a BEIS spokesperson claiming there are "no plans" to review the current regulations.

"The government has given the industry significant support to develop while ensuring that our world-leading regulations remain in place to ensure fracking happens safely and responsibly," the spokesperson added.

Energy minister Claire Perry has also rejected calls to relax the tremor limits, writing to Cuadrilla chief executive Francis Egan last year to stress that the government "believes the current system is fit for purpose and has no intention of altering it". 

Public polling suggests ministers could enjoy a political dividend from holding their ground, with new data today revealing the British public is becoming increasingly wary of allowing shale gas operations in the UK.

According to the latest BEIS Attitudes Tracker survey, support for shale gas extraction fell in December 2018 to match the September 2017 record low of 13 per cent, while opposition to the practice has risen four points since the previous survey in September 2018, to reach 35 per cent.

"There has been a general downward trend in support of fracking and a general upward trend in opposition of fracking since the question was first asked in December 2013," the survey admitted. Destruction of the natural environment and earthquake risk were the two most common reasons for opposing shale gas extraction.

By comparison, support for renewables stood at 77 per cent, with just four per cent of respondents in opposition.