Further concerns have been raised about potential future electricity shortages by two of the region’s leading energy industry figures.
Meanwhile, the National Grid has unveiled proposals to cope with potential electricity supply shortfalls in a little over a year.
This involves paying customers not to use power and creating a back-up reserve of diesel-powered generators – measures which have been described as akin to those of a third-world country
As the UK aims to hit its target of garnering 15% of energy from renewable sources by 2020, there is growing concern over a looming shortage of capacity.
Tilbury in Essex is the latest coal-fired plant to close this year and with emissions regulations meaning most of the UK’s coal-fired power capacity is coming off line over the next few years, there are concerns that the nation may face power cuts.
The National Grid says the winter evenings of 2014/15 and 2015/16 are the time when Britain will be most at risk. It estimates the margin of spare generating capacity could fall to as low as 4% and the risk of some disconnections could be as high as 50%.
Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery sits on Westminster’s Committee for Energy and Climate Change and argues that the energy firms should be allowed to run their coal-fired power stations beyond current deadlines.
He said: “There is real concern about blackouts and we should be prepared to seek amendments to laws which say we should stop using coal.
“There is a real opportunity and we should extend the life of our coal-fired power plants until we have the new generation of gas plants and nuclear.”
Lord Ridley, from the Blagdon Estate in Northumberland, a leading science journalist and author, said: “As we close down coal and gas power stations faster than expected, while failing to open nuclear or offshore wind stations fast enough, forecasts show that there will come a risky moment in a few years’ time when we may struggle to meet peak demand.
“Rather than the lights actually going out, this is most likely to produce price spikes, which could be devastating to consumers and businesses.”
In a recent consultation paper the National Grid proposes making payments to generators to keeping spare capacity available.
This includes proposals to allow coal- fired power stations, which would otherwise have been mothballed or decommissioned, to remain on stand-by between November and February of 2014/15 and 2015/16.
To avoid disrupting the wider market and government objectives for cleaner electricity, the grid says it would call on these as a last resort.
Further suggested measures include establishing grid contracts with generators to provide a Short Term Operating Reserve (STOR).
Participating generators must be able to provide 3MW or more within four hours of receiving an instruction, and be able to sustain this level of output for at least two hours, at least three times per week.
If all else fails, National Grid can resort to “MaxGen”, instructing generators to run flat out, or request emergency assistance from other system operators in Ireland and France via the interconnectors.
As a last resort, the grid will issue instructions to the regional distribution network operators to reduce or disconnect demand.
Prof Ian Fells, the emeritus professor of energy at Newcastle University, is one of the region’s leading energy experts.
He said: “It all smacks of desperation, and could have been avoided if only successive govern- ments had acted on what has been well-known for the last four years.
“The price will be high and trying to mobilise a disparate collection of stand-by generators will be very difficult to co-ordinate when shortages occur. It is all like being in a third world country.”
National Grid consultation on these measures ended last week and suggestions will be published by autumn.