The UK’s power plant graveyards: what, where, and why
- 16 Aug 2013, 14:00
- Mat Hope
For the first time in 46 years, Kent's kettles
are bubbling away without the help of Tilbury power station's
considerable coal power. On Tuesday morning, amid little fanfare,
Tilbury's turbines spun for the last time. But barely had the
soot-tinged tears dried before news of more shutdowns hit
While power companies are quick to
blame the rise of government-supported renewables for plant
closures, in reality the writing has been on the wall for a long
Some European policies require old power plants to shut down,
and - while economics plays a part - many plants are retired due to
inevitable infrastructural ageing.
Coal and oil
About 6.1 gigawatts of UK coal plant capacity is expected to
shut down by 2015 due to the European Union's Large Combustion
Plant Directive (LCPD). The LCPD requires plants to reduce sulphur
dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter emissions. If
plants choose not to comply, they can only operate for a further
20,000 hours - and must shut down for good by 2015.
The map below shows which UK plants have closed since
2011, and are expected to close in the next decade (click on it to
go to the interactive page).
In the UK, nine plants with a combined generating capacity of
around 12 gigawatts have decided to close rather than invest in
meeting the standards - including Tilbury. The plug was finally
pulled after a long and ultimately fruitless flirtation with
And it's not just coal plants that fall foul of the LCPD: three
oil plants are set to be closed by 2015, taking 3.5 gigawatts of
capacity off the UK grid.
While gas plants meet the LCPD criteria, increasing numbers of
plants across Europe are being temporarily shut down - known as
mothballing - as demand wanes.
march towards decarbonisation is proving a particular headache
for fossil fuel company CEOs. Germany's robust
renewable energy subsidies have led to increasing amounts of
wind and solar coming onto the European grid. As renewables have no
fuel costs, they
depress the wholesale price of electricity, and reduce gas
European gas plants have also suffered from cheap US coal
flooding the market. In countries such as
Germany and the
UK, this has led to coal plants rushing to use their remaining
LCPD hours while the fuel is cheap, increasing their share of
generation and pushing gas out of the mix.
Four gas plants have been mothballed in the UK since 2011 (the
blue dots on the map above), with a combined capacity of 4.1
gigawatts. The largest was 1.8 gigawatt station in Teeside, near
National Grid and market regulator,
Ofgem, both anticipate further mothballing unless the economic
While coal and gas plants are currently getting the headlines,
nuclear power plant closures will provide the UK's largest capacity
loss in the next decade.
Old nuclear plants generally have operational lifespans of about
30 years. The UK has a whole fleet of nuclear plants built in
the 1970s and 80s which are due to come offline. Oldbury's 0.4
gigawatt reactor was decommissioned in 2012, the seventh to come
offline since 2000. Eight more reactors are due to close by 2025,
dotted around the country (the light orange dots), with a combined
capacity of around 14 gigawatts.
This isn't just a problem for power generation - nuclear power
plants are also expensive to close. Radioactive materials have to
be dealt with, and sites have to be decontaminated, taking up to 60
years. The government agency tasked with overseeing nuclear power
plant closures, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, has a £3.2
billion budget for 2013-2014 - about
half of DECC's total budget.
The extent of closures means the amount of spare power the UK
has to call on if there's a spike in demand, or a power plant
unexpectedly shuts down, is expected to get a bit tight in coming
years. Ofgem released a
report in June which said the risk of power blackouts could
increase from one every 47 years now, to one every four years by
the middle of the decade.
unlikely Britain's lights will go out, however. The mothballed
gas plants can be reopened quickly, and the government has a
range of policies aimed at reducing
demand. It is also investing heavily in
interconnection to the continent so the UK can take advantage
of the increasing amounts of renewable power in Europe when
domestic wind turbines aren't spinning and the sun is stuck behind
clouds. As much as 12
gigawatts of Irish, French and Dutch electricity could be
flowing onto the UK's grid by 2020.
Sadly for old friends like Tilbury, nowadays the
government is looking beyond the old counties to provide for the
UK's electrical needs.
Update, 16/08/13, 14.30: The figure on what proportion of
DECC's budget was made of nuclear decommissioning costs was