The cost of ensuring Britain could turn its lights back on after a catastrophic nationwide blackout has soared by at least £12m this year, as National Grid is forced to pay struggling old coal plants to “keep warm” in case of an emergency.
Britain’s so-called “black start” plans are designed to ensure that electricity supplies could be swiftly restored in the event of an unprecedented power failure plunging all or part of the country into darkness.
As most power plants need to draw some electricity from the grid to start generating, National Grid has to ensure the UK retains a certain number of black start plants that are able to fire up independently using their own generators.
Historically, several of the UK’s coal plants have been relied upon to form part of the black start plan.
But rising green taxes, cheap gas prices and the growth of renewables are together rendering the coal plants increasingly uneconomic, with some closing down for good and most others now only running for parts of the day.
This poses a threat to Britain’s emergency plans because if the plants are not generating when a catastrophic power failure hits, they will take far longer to start up.
Energy regulator Ofgem has now given National Grid permission to pay the plants millions of pounds to keep “warm”, so that they would be ready to start up quickly in an emergency.
So-called “warming” fees for this year have soared from just £1m to £17.5m, a letter from the regulator reveals.
While reductions in other parts of the plans have partially offset the rise, the overall black start budget for this year – which is ultimately paid for by consumers on their energy bills – has still soared from £22.4m to £34.7m.
The cost is expected to increase further because National Grid has since awarded new black start contracts to more coal plants: Drax; and SSE’s Fiddler’s Ferry, which had been at risk of closure.