Cockenzie power station set for Westminster debate

Cockenzie power station near Prestonpans. Picture: TSPL
Cockenzie power station near Prestonpans. Picture: TSPL
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THE fight for the future of an iconic East Lothian power station is to be taken to the front-benches of Westminster, political leaders have vowed.

As Cockenzie Power Station shut down its turbines for the last time yesterday, Labour’s Fiona O’Donnell and Iain Gray, MP and MSP for East Lothian, said they would push UK ministers for clarity on Britain’s future energy policy so plans to build a gas-fired facility on the site could proceed.

The call came amid mounting uncertainty over the timescale for construction work at Cockenzie, as industry bosses said there were a number of areas in the recently published Coalition Energy Bill where crucial detail was lacking.

UK ministers insist the Bill will boost progress towards a low-carbon economy but executives said questions remained, particularly over funding for future power generation.

Ms O’Donnell said: “I will be calling on ministers to ensure that the Energy Bill gives companies the clarity they are seeking to be confident about investing in a new generation of power stations, including at Cockenzie, to ensure that the UK has the right energy mix in the future and that the local economy reaps the benefits of that investment.”

Paying tribute to staff based at Cockenzie during its 45 years of operation, she added that plans to build a gas-fired station were being held back by government vagueness over the function of the national energy market.

“Cockenzie Power Station has played a critical role in maintaining the security of electricity supplies in Britain for more than four decades,” she said. “But as this era comes to an end, it is important that we look to the future of the site and its continued use for generating energy.

“ScottishPower have planning consent for a new gas-fired station on the site, but have said that they are unable to commit to new investment in gas generation until the UK government clarifies how the market will work in the future.”

The call was backed by Holyrood counterpart and former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray, who tabled a motion acknowledging the role played by the station and said: “Now we need to look to the future of the site and in particular the potential for it to retain its vital role generating electricity and providing local jobs. There is already consent for a 1000MW gas-fired power station on the site and it is important that the right decisions are now made to enable this development to happen as quickly as possible.

“Fiona and I will be doing all we can to support this next stage of Cockenzie’s development, in order to help it play a continuing crucial part in keeping the lights on in Scotland and across the UK.”

Calls for clarity over construction plans at Cockenzie were backed by local councillors, who said residents living close to the site had expressed concern at the facility lying derelict for several years.

Councillor Steven Brown, SNP member for Preston, Seton and Gosford, said: “I think people are worried about the building lying empty while we wait for answers from Westminster on the future of the power station. And there’s a lot of concern about whether it will be secure enough as it’s lying empty.

“When you look at what’s happened to some of the other stations in Scotland, it’s understandable. They’re just lying empty and nothing is being done with them.

“I think people are also ­worried that there’s potential for it to attract thieves who will strip any ­valuable material they can while it’s empty.

“There will be safety risks. If the building is empty for years it could crumble. Who’s going to be responsible for it?”

Low-key end for a giant of power generation

AS HE pressed the red button, Billy Kelly set about a chain reaction that would sound the death knell on the monolithic energy plant that helped keep the Scotland’s lights burning for almost five decades.

Alarms rang out and then the normally unflappable station manager choked out the words “that’s it” as a monitor relayed how the blazing coal-burning furnace was slowly extinguishing.

It was a low-key ending for Cockenzie Power Station – the huge electricity generator perched on the East Lothian coast that in its heyday powered more than a million homes.

The plant’s distinctive twin chimney stacks, visible from miles around, have been a navigational tool for fishermen on the Firth of Forth and a ‘welcome home’ beacon for died-in-the-wool ‘Panners’ who grew up in the shadow of the iconic powerhouse.

An East Lothian landmark, question marks now hang over future operations at the site as ScottishPower await the wording of the Energy Bill from Westminster.

Much rests on it. The energy firm has put the brakes on £1 billion of investment in a new, more eco-friendly, gas-fired plant until it “receives clarity” about how “the market will work in future”.

But for the workers – whose numbers have depleted over the years from a high of 500 to around 120 – yesterday’s final shutdown was the end of an era.

Mr Kelly, who has worked at the station for 27 years, said he was fighting back tears when he effectively pulled the cord on the plant’s final curtain.

“For me it was hugely emotional and I didn’t expect it to be that way,” he said. “I’m an engineer to trade and we are trained to be calm, cool, collected and very logical so I didn’t expect to be so emotional.”

Operations at the site – which used to require a stockpile of 750 million tonnes of coal – have been winding down over the last 18 months.

As it is decommissioned over the coming years, inner-infrastructure will be stripped down, turbines dismantled and, eventually, the imposing pencil-like chimneys will be razed to the ground. but the plant’s outer shell may stay as a gas-fired clone.

James Yule, 62, a roofer from Prestonpans, who lived in the area when the station was built and worked there as a member of the maintenance crew in the early 1970s, said: “Usually you fly in that way and you can see those chimneys from the aeroplane. When you see them, you know you’re coming home. When it was built, Prestonpans was surrounded by mines and pits, and the land was just wasteland. To see that huge station emerge there was just remarkable. The chimneys took your breath away when you saw them for the first time.”

Switched on for 45 years

COCKENZIE went live in the summer of 1967 and was officially opened on May 24, 1968, by the then Secretary of State for Scotland, the Rt Hon William Ross.

In total, it generated more than 150 Terawatt Hours of electricity – enough to power the average annual electricity needs of more than 1 million homes every year during its 45 years of operation.In an average year, the station would receive around 800 train loads of coal – meaning up to 36,000 trains delivered to Cockenzie’s coal handling plant. The last one took place at 3pm on March 9. One local told the Evening News: “It’s part of local life. I can’t imagine a day when the men won’t be there any more.”