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The UK electricity company Drax has said it could keep its coal-fired power plants operating beyond their planned closure next year as the energy crisis in Europe highlights potential fragilities in Britain’s energy supplies.
Will Gardiner, the company’s chief executive, said the UK would face a “tough winter” if temperatures were colder than average, but said Drax’s last remaining coal units would help to balance a grid that had experienced tight supply in recent weeks.
British gas and electricity prices have surged to record highs as fears build that Europe faces extremely tight natural gas supplies this winter, which the UK relies on for almost all of its heating and more than 50 per cent of its power generation at times.
Gardiner stopped short of saying the company would run its coal plants at full capacity throughout winter, a move that would help preserve gas supplies for home heating, but he indicated it was considering all options and could respond to government requests.
“We’re very aware that the country might have a significant problem and if there’s something Drax can do we will absolutely think about doing that,” Gardiner told the Financial Times on Wednesday during a visit to New York for the annual Climate Week gathering.
Gardiner said he had a “good working relationship” with Kwasi Kwarteng, the UK’s business secretary, but that if the government needed Drax to keep the coal units open beyond their anticipated closure date he needed to know soon.
“If the government wants us to rethink our plans, we need to talk to them in the next few months,” he said.
Drax had planned to fully shut its two remaining coal plants in September 2022 and convert them to biomass — part of an energy transition strategy that would decarbonise a power producer that was once one of Europe’s biggest polluters.
The North Yorkshire-based power station has switched the majority of its units to burning wood pellets Drax says are carbon neutral. The coal units, in northern England, only generated 3 per cent of the company’s electricity supplies in 2019 but have been kept in reserve to meet swings in demand.
The plants have already been called back into action in the past two weeks to help plug a supply gap caused by calm weather hitting offshore wind generation and a fire on a transmission line bringing electricity from France.
The UK has targeted a complete phaseout of coal by 2024 and was expected to hit that target within the next two years. But the energy crisis has led some figures in the industry to question whether it would be better to keep coal units in reserve until closer to the final phase out date.
Any move to prolong the life of coal plants may be seen as awkward for a government that has trumpeted its success at cutting emissions, primarily by pushing coal off the grid. The UK is also due to host the UN climate summit in Glasgow in November.
The government has repeatedly said the surge in gas prices shows the need to accelerate the move away from “volatile” fossil fuels.
Drax has aligned itself with the UK government’s plans to decarbonise the country’s economy, having in 2019 said it hoped to become a “carbon negative” company by 2030 by capturing carbon from the biomass it burns.
Gardiner said the UK government had a “clear plan” about how to develop more carbon-free energy.
“But over the next 10 years there’s going to need to be a very clear view of how we’re going to make sure there’s enough security of supply,” he said.
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