The end of the road for Didcot A?

25 July 2012

Last week the team at Aether were joined by some colleagues from the UK emissions inventory team at AEA for a tour of Didcot A power station, one of the UKs largest predominantly coal firing facilities at 2,000 MW (enough to provide electricity to 2 million homes!). In addition, a small amount of biomass is now also burnt at the plant. The tour provided a great chance to get away from the desks and get an up-close idea of just what goes into keeping the UK energised.

It’s fair to say that the 300 acre site has the slight feel of a ghost town. Commissioned in the late 1960s, there used to be well over 2,000 workers at the site, though I dare say the figure isn’t anywhere near that these days due to the computerisation being used. During our two hours on site the only human activity we saw was in the form of our very friendly and informative tour guides, a couple of fork lift drivers and the three men working in the control room. That in itself is quite a bizarre mixture of the old and the new. I imagine in the 1970s it was technology at its grandest, reminiscent of the Starship Enterprise. The huge computers, screens and flashing beacons showing the latest data coming through from each of the four 500MW generators are all still there. But the control room engineers now sit at flat screens much like any PC user, providing all the information at a more usable scale.

Energy generation in the UK is currently going through an interesting and testing transition. With the European Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD) introduced in 2001, power stations with a thermal output of >50MW either have to opt in to new environmental standards or opt out and close after 20,000 hours or 2016. The power stations choosing to opt in can either meet stringent emission limit values or be part of the National Emission Reduction Plan (NERP).

The result is that a number of existing power stations have had to implement abatement equipment with large associated costs, to reduce emissions to an acceptable level. Didcot A has opted out under the LCPD, and therefore will shut down at some time within this period, as it has chosen not to install systems such as flue-gas desulphurisation. In the meantime, the power plant burns low sulphur coal, the majority of which is imported from Russia. Whilst the specific date for closure of Didcot A is not yet certain, our tour guide explained that they are currently working to plans assuming likely closure in 2013.

It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years at both the national and local scale. As a local resident to the power station, the cooling towers provide a significant landmark, particularly as a navigation point when I first moved to the area four months ago! However, I’m sure that whilst it will seem a little odd for locals when Didcot A is eventually decommissioned, the national issue is of most pressing concern. With a number of power stations set to close in the next few years, there is a significant lack of immediate replacement. The Government have expressed an interest in new nuclear stations, but with a number of energy providers pulling out of development plans, the UK will need to find more immediate ways to fill the shortfall.  It seems that increased energy imports are the most likely result, at least in the short term.

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