Britain’s last coal power stations ‘being paid huge sums’ to keep electricity flowing as wind drops

The imposing cooling towers of a power station near the village of Drax in North Yorkshire.  Plumes of water vapor leave a trail in the cold November night air.   Horizontal.  Space for copy.
Coal power stations have been fired up to make up for a lack of wind power, (Getty)

Britain’s last remaining coal power stations are being paid record sums to supply power as one of the least windy summers since 1961 kept wind power low.

The UK’s electricity system operator ESO spent £86m last week, including making payments to fossil fuel power stations, The Guardian reported.

That included payments of up to £4,000 per megawatt-hour for fossil fuel power stations to generate electricity at short notice.

The West Burton plant in Nottingham was among those fired up.

A National Grid spokesman said, “In balancing the electricity system, we take actions in economical order and not on the basis of generation type.

“Depending on system conditions, some power sources may be better at meeting a balancing requirement than others, so the most cost-effective solution to ensure safe, secure system operation will be sought.”

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Britain regularly goes for long stretches without using coal power, but coal power plants are kept on for when weather means it’s difficult to generate power from wind.

This summer, Britain brought forward its target to end the use of coal in electricity generation by a year to October 2024.

Ahead of hosting the UN's Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November, Britain has stepped up its efforts to encourage other nations to cut emissions more quickly.

Experts believe ending the use of coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, for power could play a major part in limiting the modern-day rise in global temperatures to 1.5C, a key international target.

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Britain, home to the world's first coal-fuelled power plant in the 1880s, was largely reliant on the fossil fuel for electricity for the following century, but last year reduced its use of coal in the power sector to less than 2% of the electricity mix.

That compares with around 25% five years ago, and is far below the levels seen in some countries.

China generated 53% of the world's total coal-fired power in 2020, Ember, an energy and climate research group, found.

Read more: Why economists worry that reversing climate change is hopeless

In 2017, more than a million people died worldwide due to burning fossil fuels, with half the deaths caused by coal, a study found this summer.

Researchers from around the world analysed the health effects of air pollution (and where it was coming from) in 200 countries.

The researchers say that pollution from cars and industry is only part of the problem as tiny PM2.5 particles – which can go into people’s lungs – can also make people ill if they cook every night on a stove.

Professor Randall Martin of Washington University in St Louis said: "PM2.5 is the world's leading environmental risk factor for mortality. Our key objective is to understand its sources.”

Researchers worked with data sources from around the world to analyse different sources of air pollution - from energy production to burning gas to dust storms.

Erin McDuffie, a visiting research associate, said the central question is: "How many deaths are attributable to exposure to air pollution from specific sources?"

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