UK 'faces new blackout rationing threat'

Problems with power generators have sparked new emergency measures

Updated: 
Coal-fired power station,Ferrybridge,UK

Problems with existing power generators mean some UK factories will be encouraged to shut down for several hours a day to preserve energy.

The grid operator says the new moves, which include bringing older power stations back online, are prudent. But the news will stoke fears that UK power supply-demand pressures will build as the winter days get shorter.

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1970s-style worry?

Adding to the supply-demand stress, coal stations at Ironbridge and Ferrybridge have been knocked out.

An Essex gas station has also been out of commission for several months. This means some UK businesses which promise to power down between 4pm and 8pm will be paid compensation during the winter months.

"This is a sensible precaution," says Cordi O'Hara, National Grid's director of UK market operations, "to take while the picture for this winter remains uncertain. At this stage we don't know if these reserve services will be needed, but they could provide an additional safeguard."

These reserve services include reviving much older power generators - typically gas power plants that haven't been scrapped - to provide additional capacity when needed. National Grid have stressed that the measures are sensible.

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'A good thing'?

However, as the UK economy inches its way forward out of recession, energy use will rise, particularly from manufacturing. Some power companies have already claimed that the pressure of energy price caps - as promised by Labour - could make energy demand and supply pressures frailer.

Earlier this year Olympics boss Sir John Armitt claimed a series of UK blackouts might even be helpful if it highlighted the UK's lack of reserves, dragging it closer to the blackout threshold.

"The Central Electricity Generating Board used to say," he told Building magazine, "that a resilient network operated on a 25% capacity surplus. We're down to 4% because we've gone slower than we should have done on nuclear."

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Long view

The 2013/2014 winter was mild compared to the previous winter. But a blast of Arctic weather could see a return to supply-demand pressures, and renewed blackout worry.

Meanwhile the longer term conundrum lurks: to construct an energy policy that will last several decades; a timespan well beyond the remit of most energy chief execs, shareholders and politicians.

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