Comment – When the power stations are gone…

It’s an ill wind that blows no-one any good. And so, while the UK’s coal-fired power stations have belched CO2 into the atmosphere and been a blot on the British skyline for 50 years or more, their demise has greatly improved the fortunes of specialist demolition companies. One man’s environmental campaign is another man’s source of revenue.

Grain, Kingsnorth, Cockenzie. Didcot A, Tilbury B and Fawley. Littlebrook, Ironbridge and Ferrybridge. Longannet, Rugeley and Eggborough. Cottam, Fiddler’s Ferry and Drax. Only Ratcliffe Power Station in Nottinghamshire meets current emissions standards and is, therefore, set to remain open.

21 power stations. 20 of them closed or converted. Most of them demolished or in the process of decommissioning ahead of demolition.

The fate of the fossil-fuel plants here in the UK and across Europe was sealed when the Large Combustion Plant Directive was ratified in October 2001. Just under seven years later, the directive came into effect.

That single piece of legislation slowly helped reduce emissions while simultaneously triggering a focused gold rush among certain demolition contractors.

Like gold rushes of old, this one has not been without incident. Demolition workers were killed in the line of duty at both Longannet and Didcot A.

But for a select group of demolition contractors, the demise of the coal fired power stations has been the gift that kept on giving. That workload, revenue and stability is about to end, however. The gift is about to stop giving.

By this time next year when West Burton A finally closes its gates, there will be no cooling towers to implode; no boiler houses to fell; no stacks to topple.

The gold rush will be over. The flow of millions of pounds into the demolition sector’s coffers will dwindle to a trickle before drying up entirely.

So what then?

Some companies have built their entire reputations upon their expertise in dismantling and demolishing these challenging structures. Some have joined the industry’s top table through their work on power station demolition. Others have created specialist teams and divisions to meet the demands of the power stations and the methodologies, safety, training and bidding they require.

They have invested heavily in highly specialised and heavy-duty equipment to tackle structures that were built to last.

But the end is now in sight. So what happens to those companies now?

Some will pivot, of course. Some already have, taking on work in industrial decommissioning and post petro-chemical works.

There is also the possibility that when the power station door closes, the offshore oil platform door may swing open. But that will not be without its challenges; and not every company will be equipped or able to rise to those challenges.

And what does all this mean for the highly skilled but highly specialised individuals that have been at the forefront of the power station demolition boom?

The industry has been aware that many of its explosive demolition experts are at or even beyond retirement age. With tower block implosions now increasingly rare, was the power station boom their last hurrah?

Ultimately, demolition contractors are resourceful, flexible and adaptable. They have ridden highs and plumbed lows before. They will do so again.

But the demolition of these iconic landmarks has left a glaring and welcome gap in the nation’s skyline. It could leave an equally glaring but far less welcome gap in the balance sheets of some demolition firms.