UK: Planning Act Blog 203: Analysis of Urgency of Need for Energy in the UK

Last Updated: 14 January 2011
Article by Angus Walker

This is entry number 203, first published on 11 January 2011, of a blog on the Planning Act 2008 infrastructure planning and authorisation regime. Click here for a link to the whole blog. If you would like to be notified when the blog is updated, with links sent by email, click here.

Today's entry considers why the need for new low-carbon electricity generation is urgent.

One of the main purposes, if not the main purpose, of the infrastrructure planning and authorisation regime introduced by the Planning Act 2008 and being tweaked by the Localism Bill, is the timely delivery of new energy infrastructure. Indeed, David Cameron referred to the urgent need only last month.

It is often said that the UK faces an energy crisis, with the danger of 'the lights going out' in 2017, if not earlier. But what are the facts and figures of the crisis? This blog entry sets out the sources and figures behind the three main drivers behind the need for new low-carbon electricity production in the UK. A future entry will look at whether the current authorisation regime is equipped to supply it.

The urgency

There are five main reasons which all combine to create an urgent need for new low-carbon electricity generation in the UK:

  1. to combat climate change, energy consumpton needs to convert to low-carbon sources;
  2. the EU is imposing ever-stricter limits on other emissions from power plants;
  3. existing nuclear plants are getting old and will have to be switched off over the next few years;
  4. the UK will be more secure if it generates as much of its own energy as possible; and
  5. fossil fuels will run out eventually.

Pressure for low-carbon energy sources

The EU has imposed a target on the UK to produce 15% of its energy (overall, not just electricity) from renewable sources (i.e. not including nuclear) by 2020, as part of the Renewable Energy Directive. In 2005, the figure was only 1.3%, but the UK got off lightly - Sweden's target is 49%.

This exacerbates the requirement for renewable electricity production, since one of the likely ways for non-electricity energy consumption to become low-carbon is to convert to electricity (e.g. moving to electric cars) and so the demand for electricity is expected to increase considerably. Indeed, to reach the target, the government's renewable energy action plan expects electricity from renewable sources to reach 30% by 2020, to compensate for heating and transport not doing so well.

Meanwhile, the Climate Change Act 2008 commits the UK to reducing carbon emissions by 2050 to 20% of 1990 levels, to which reducing emissions from energy production will play its part.

EU emissions requirements

Oddly enough, the main pressure to close large carbon-emitting power plants does not come from climate change considerations, but from efforts to reduce pollution from other emissions, although their closure will help with the renewable energy target.

In simple terms, the Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD) required all industrial plants using more than 50MW of fuel (including power plants) either to opt in and reduce their emissions of sulphur and nitrogen compounds to specified levels, or opt out and declare that they were going to close on 31 December 2015, or after they had operated for 20,000 hours from 1 January 2008, whichever is the earlier. 20,000 hours corresponds to just over three years' continuous operation.

16 plants at 13 sites in the UK chose to opt out. Data is available on how many hours they operated for in 2008 and 2009, a quarter of the way towards the final closure date of 31 December 2015. For those that operated for more than 5000 hours during that period, they will either have to slow down or close early.

A new directive, the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) is imposing stricter emission limits and there will be a new opt in or out exercise with a deadline of 1 January 2014, where those opting out will have to close by 31 December 2023.

Closure of nuclear plants

Meanwhile, the UK's ten nuclear reactors are due to close over the next 25 years simply by coming to the end of their designed lifespan. By combining the fossil fuel power plants that opted out under the LCPD, estimating their closure dates from their hours of operation in 2008-9, with the nuclear plants, I get the following table (some original research!):



Est closure

Cumulative MW

Oldbury (nuclear)








Tilbury 1




Wylfa (nuclear)












Tilbury 2








Hartlepool (nuclear)




Heysham 1 (nuclear)
































Hinkley Point (nuclear)




Dungeness (nuclear)




Heysham 2 (nuclear)




Opted-out IED plants




Sizewell (nuclear)




This totals over 22GW, mirroring the figure of 22GW referred to in paragraphs 3.3.7-3.3.9 of the Overarching Energy National Policy Statement.

The figure may increase in 2023 depending on how many plants opt out of the Industrial Emissions Directive (we will know in 2014). My sources for the table are:

  • the report that the government submitted to the EU in March 2010 listing the opted out plants and their hours of use in 2008-9;
  • the capacities from the 2010 list of power stations in the 2010 Digest of UK Energy Statistics (DUKES);
  • and the nuclear power station closure dates from the NIA website, updated where known (e.g. it says Oldbury is closing in 2008 but it is still going).

The figure of 22GW is more than a quarter of the UK's total generating capacity of around 82GW. Of that total, 3.5GW is acounted by wind power that only tends to run at about 1/3 of its stated capacity.

Given that current peak demand for electricity in the UK is around 60GW and is likely to increase when heat and transport are decarbonised, you can see why 'the lights will go out' sometime towards the end of this decade unless new capacity is provided.

So those are the details of the challenge facing the UK over the next ten years or so. From March 2010 a new consenting regime for energy infrastructure came into force. Is it able to deliver the energy infrastructure to meet the shortfall in supply and the increase in demand? This is a timely question because of the opportunity to amend the system via the Localism Bill, having its second reading in Parliament on Monday, and will be the subject of a future blog entry.

Previous entry 202: analysis of the rest of the Localism Bill (3)
Next entry 204: Lords still unhappy with energy National Policy Statements

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Angus Walker
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