Energy firms braced for summer of protests

Britain's leading power generating companies have put rivalries aside to draw up plans to counter the expected wave of protests against a proposed new generation of coal-fired power plants.

More than 40 security and media executives from the "Big Six" energy companies, as well as an array of independent generators including Drax, met in London to discuss how to prevent demonstrators disrupting their planned expansion.

They discussed tactics for keeping demonstrators from entering power stations and potentially causing costly shutdowns. Companies fear this summer could see one of the strongest campaigns against coal-fired power stations by environmental groups for years.

"It was to help companies learn from experience and to make sure they are able to deal with protests effectively and safely so they can also maintain their responsibilities toward customers," said David Porter, chief executive of the Association of Electricity Producers, which organised the event.

How best to handle such situations from a public relations perspective was high on the agenda of the summit, held on 27 March. Some companies have already been targeted by protesters over plans to expand coal operations this year.

There are at least eight coal-fired power plants – the dirtiest form of power generation – in various stages of the planning process around the country, campaigners say. These include sites in Essex, West Yorkshire and Northumberland. Amid increasingly urgent warnings about global warming and the difficulty Britain will have in meeting ambitious emissions reduction targets, opposition to coal-fired plants has grown.

Several campaign groups have promised big protests this summer. Camp for Climate Action, the group that scaled the Houses of Parliament and a British Airways jet tailfin earlier this year to protest against the new runway at Heathrow, is one. It plans a week-long demonstration at Kingsnorth in Kent, where Eon is proposing to build the country's first new coal-fired plant in decades. Other targeted campaigns are expected.

The week-long protest will start on 4 August. "It looks as if they might try to get inside, which we would obviously discourage them from doing on safety grounds," said a spokesman for Eon. The group has dubbed 9 August a "day of mass protest and direct action".

Eon hopes to build two coal-fired generators to replace a plant at the site which is closing because tighter emissions laws will render it inoperable by 2015. The plants would generate enough energy to supply 1.5 million households.

Eon expects the new plant, equipped with updated technology, to pollute far less than the current facility. It has also applied for the site to be used as a commercial testing ground for carbon capture and storage technology, which pumps emissions generated from burnt coal underground. The viability of the technology on an industrial scale is still unproven, however, and industry is lobbying the Government for financial incentives to pay for its rollout. Critics still maintain that despite the advances in technology, coal will still be the most polluting of all power stations.