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UK 'facing massive power supply gap'

Power plant

A new report claims closure of UK coal and nuclear plants will create an electricity supply gap of up to 55% by 2025.

The report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) called Engineering the UK Electricity Gap claims the UK will be unable to build enough gas-fired or nuclear power stations to solve the problem because there isn’t enough time, there aren’t enough resources or enough skilled workers. It claims that this will cause more reliance on interconnectors, which could be less secure and more expensive.

The report points to three factors that will lead to a 40-55% electricity supply gap. First is government policy to close all coal-fired power stations by 2025, second the retirement of the majority of the UK’s ageing nuclear fleet and third, the growing electricity demand.

In addition, the report says current plans to plug the gap by building Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) plants are unrealistic, as the UK would need to build about 30 new CCGT plants in less than 10 years – and the UK has built just four in the last 10 years.

IMechE head of energy and environment and lead author of the report Dr Jenifer Baxter said: “We cannot rely on CCGTs alone to plug this gap, as we have neither the time, resources nor enough people with the right skills to build sufficient power plants. Electricity imports will put the UK’s electricity supply at the mercy of the markets, weather and politics of other countries, making electricity less secure and less affordable.

“Currently there are insufficient incentives for companies to invest in any sort of electricity infrastructure or innovation and worryingly even the Government’s own energy calculator does not allow for the scenarios that new energy policy points towards. Under current policy, it is almost impossible for UK electricity demand to be met by 2025.

“Government needs to take urgent action to work with industry to create a clear pathway with timeframes and milestones for new electricity infrastructure to be built including fossil fuel plants, nuclear power, energy storage and combined heat and power. With CCS now out of the picture, new low carbon innovations must be supported over the course of the next 10 years.

“We need to ensure we have the right skills and knowledge in place to enable this key infrastructure to be built. The UK Infrastructure Commission must also take urgent action to prioritise greater energy efficiency by industry and clarify financial incentives for research and development of renewables, energy storage and combined heat and power.”

 The report makes four recommendations. These are:

1. The UK Infrastructure Commission should assess the necessary incentives for industry and the public to reduce the demand on the electricity system through engineering efficiencies into processes and equipment, awareness raising and advocacy.

2. The UK Infrastructure Commission must urgently implement the changes necessary across the industry and supply chain to deliver security of electricity supply with no coal-fired generation. These include investment in research and development activities for renewables, energy storage, combined heat and power and innovation in power station design and build.

3. Collaboratively the UK Government and its delivery bodies, along with industry, should review the capacity in the supply chains to deliver the construction of the ‘most likely’ new power infrastructure. This includes identifying timeframes and milestones for conventional and unconventional power generation build (fossil fuel, nuclear, energy storage, combined heat and power and off-grid options) along with growth in skills and knowledge within the UK to meet the potential increase in demand.

However within the civil engineering sector, experts did not think the picture was as bleak as the report painted. In a comment piece for New Civil Engineer, Mott MacDonald group strategic development manager Simon Harrison said: “I don’t think the rate of gas fired build needed is as scary as the IMechE implies – it says we need 30 CCGT plants in the next ten years when we have built only four in the last decade - unless electric vehicles take off quickly, which seems unlikely at current oil prices.”

He said the government needs to get the balance between building for current needs and facilitating future technologies right: “The policy dilemma is how to balance facilitating investment in innovative, transformative, technologies, whilst also incentivising that sufficient large power plant are built for the base load needs of the next few years and most likely a longer term backup of dependable capacity. Too little building and supply security is put at risk, too much and innovation gets squeezed, consumers overpay and carbon emissions become locked in.”

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