This time last year, no-one knew when the UK’s remaining 11 coal power stations would close. Since then, incredibly 5 of them have announced they will close this year, equal to almost half the UK coal fleet. In total, this means 8,400MW will close this year, out of a total 18,300MW open today (see figure 1).
The latest announcement was yesterday, that Rugeley would close. Rugeley is 44 years old this year, the youngest of all the power stations to close, and has been limping along this year with one of the two units offline since December with a transformer problem.
Although some coal units have been contracted to run in the UK’s winter reserve (the Supplemental Balancing Reserve), they can only run in hours where National Grid deems capacity is too tight. Therefore, they will contribute to keeping the lights on, but with minimal levels of generation.
The closures are a major step for the decarbonisation of the UK – these 5 coal power stations alone emitted 32 million tonnes of CO2 in 2014, equal to 6% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. This means total UK GHG emissions will significantly fall in 2016 and beyond, thanks to these coal closures.
Because coal will be replaced with a mix of renewables and gas, electricity produced in the UK will now have a much lower carbon-intensity. This means we can have confidence in accelerating the roll-out of electric cars and the use of heat pumps, in order to further modernise and decarbonise our economy.
But perhaps the biggest benefit is the health benefits of cleaner air. In 2013, these 5 coal power stations alone emitted 18% of all UK sulphur dioxide emissions, 7% of all UK nitrogen oxides, and 527kg of mercury (see figure 2). Their health damage across 2008 to 2012 was assessed by the European Environment Agency, and calculated to be between €5,526m to €17,419m, depending on the methodology.
A December-2013 report from the Health and Environment Alliance takes the analysis a step further. It finds that UK coal-fired power stations have been annually responsible for 1,600 premature deaths, 68,000 additional days of medication, 363,266 working days lost and more than a million incidents of lower respiratory symptoms .
(NB: **Ferrybridge health costs halved to reflect 50% of the station shut prior to this year)
So what about the other remaining half of the coal fleet? These 6 coal power stations emit even more CO2 – equal to 10% of the UK’s total GHG emissions in 2014. In addition, they emitted a further 13% of the UK’s sulphur dioxide and 11% of the UK’s nitrogen oxides in 2013. The health impacts were also slightly higher, at €6,409m to €20,806m across 2008-2012.
And it is for these reasons that it is necessary to ensure the Government legislates to phase out coal by 2025 at the latest. That is almost ten years away, which is surely plenty of time to build enough renewables, gas power stations, electricity storage, interconnectors and demand response capability, to ensure we can at last phase-out dirty coal forever.