Two of the UK’s coal-fired power stations that were kept online in case they were needed during the energy crisis have started supplying electricity for the first time this winter. A warm winter kept them from operating until March 7, when freezing temperatures pushed up demand for power and heating, wind production shrank to low levels and strikes in France reduced the amount of electricity the country could supply to Britain through undersea cables. If it were not for these two coal plants with about 2 gigawatts of capacity, Britain would be forced into rolling blackouts. Last year, the British Government asked several coal-fired power stations that were set to close down to be on emergency standby this winter. As recently as 2016-18, UK coal fired generation typically peaked at about 10 gigawatts in winter.
Coal produced 3.2 percent of Britain’s electricity generation during this supply crunch. Natural gas-fired plants accounted for 54 percent, wind 13 percent and nuclear 10 percent. The National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO) could also trigger the demand flexibility service (DFS) which pays households to reduce their energy usage, but there was sufficient electricity from the coal units to avoid needing this option. The DFS rewards people, usually through discounts on their bills, for turning off appliances such as ovens and dishwashers during a specific period when electricity demand is high.
Last summer, amid a peak in natural gas prices aggravated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the ESO negotiated a winter contingency contract with five coal generators due to a request from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. At the time of the contract, the cost of the contracts was forecasted in the region of £340 million ($406 million) to £395 million ($471 million) and is subject to the procurement of coal. If and when the units are run, an additional cost due to the cost of the European carbon allowance will be incurred. In the middle of December, the coal-fired stations warmed up but were not used, as the operator generated enough power from other sources.
The UK is relying on wind energy for a major portion of its “clean” energy. The fluctuation in UK wind power, however, can be quite large. With much of the UK enjoying light winds and a cold sunny day on January 22, 2023, wind power accounted for just 6.89 gigawatts, about 17.6 percent of the total electricity being generated. Two weeks prior, on January 10, British windfarms were producing three times as much power, averaging 21.69 gigawatts, and setting a new record. Its unreliability is a major reason for the contracts with coal power generating stations. It is simply not dependable.
Coal Plants Are “Clean”
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a new coal plant with pollution controls reduces nitrogen oxides by 83 percent, sulfur dioxide by 98 percent, and particulate matter by 99.8 percent compared to plants without controls, which shows how clean coal technology has gotten. Last year, President Biden claimed that “no one is building new coal plants because they can’t rely on it.” But, last year, China permitted more coal power plants than at any time in the last seven years, which is the equivalent of two new coal power plants per week.
Biden continued to espouse that “We’re going to be shutting these plants down all across America and having wind and solar.” Britain’s experience with wind should indicate that wind power is unreliable because it is dependent on wind speeds produced by nature over which man has no control. The UK’s wind typically produces about 31.84 percent of its capacity. Britain is paying extra to have emergency coal plants available when its coal plants could be producing power at 80 percent of capacity on a regular basis.
China’s Coal Builds
Local governments in China last year permitted 106 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity, about four times more than in 2021 and the equivalent of two large coal power plants per week–a total of 168 coal-fired units spread across 82 sites–the highest amount permitted since 2015. Construction began on 50 gigawatts of those coal plants in 2022, a more than 50 percent increase from 2021. Several projects were able to obtain permits and financing and start construction within months of being announced. For comparison, all the generating stations in the UK from all sources combined add up to less than the 106 gigawatts that China permitted in 2022 of just coal units. China is expected to add 70 gigawatts of coal- and natural gas-fired generation in 2023. It is building coal plants to make its power system more reliable as the world pushes to electrify everything from heating to transportation, which will put more strain on the electric grid. China also needs affordable and reliable energy to run its industrial facilities, as it is the largest manufacturer in the world.
China’s drought and heat wave last summer dried up generation from the country’s hydroelectric dams and increased electricity demand for air conditioners, which are becoming more common in China as the country increases its prosperity. Peak demand increased by more than 20 percent from a previous record. China saw a rapid increase in peak loads in 2021 to 2022, with the highest recorded peak load increasing by 230 gigawatts, an increase over double the entire size of the UK’s electrical system. To avoid energy shortages, government officials have indicated that coal-fired generation is critical for the country’s economy. Many of the newly approved projects are identified as “supporting” baseload capacity designed to ensure the stability of the power grid and minimize blackout risks.
China is also building wind turbines and solar panels as it leads the world in those technologies, with installations expected to increase again from a record reached last year. China installed about 125 gigawatts of wind and solar power capacity last year according to government data, though both produce electricity at fractions of their nameplate capacity. In 2023, the country is expected to add 100 gigawatts of new solar power capacity and 65 gigawatts of wind power. China is also the global leader in hydroelectricity production.
Clearly, China knows it cannot solely rely on wind and solar power to meet its electricity demand, which is expected to grow at 6 percent this year, compared to 3.6 percent last year. China accounts for about half of the world’s coal production and consumption, gets about 60 percent of its electricity from coal-fired power plants, and relies on coal imports to supplement its domestic production.
The UK had to activate two coal-fired power plants recently to avoid rolling blackouts and activating its demand flexibility service, where it asks households to avoid using electrical appliances to reduce electricity demand during specified hours. Low wind speeds was one of the reasons that the UK needed to activate its standby coal plants. The UK government pays the coal plants dearly to be on emergency standby. These plants, however, could be operating at 80 percent capacity –at least double wind’s capacity factor—and generating reliable electricity.
Despite coal plants becoming cleaner than ever, President Biden wants to retire the U.S. coal plants currently operating and instead build wind and solar power, which would leave the U.S. electrical system in the same shape as the UK’s. Interestingly, these sources are highly dependent upon China, which makes and processes much of their critical parts and minerals. China, in comparison, has set energy security as a priority as it is has permitted more coal plants than any time since 2015. It intends to have the power its industry and households need when low wind speeds, drought, and cloudy days occur.