As the government reportedly offers ever larger subsidies to the nuclear industry in a last-ditch attempt to get new reactors built, an editorial in the Independent on Sunday challenged opponents of the current pro-nuclear scenario to articulate our alternatives. It’s the right question to ask, because the 16GW of new nuclear that Ministers still insist are going to be built by 2025 is now looking extremely optimistic.
Thankfully, this conversation has been happening for some time. The evidence suggests there are any number of different ways we could meet our energy needs and decarbonise electricity at minimal cost to households and businesses. The exact percentages, terrawatthours and gigawatts vary from study to study, but here are four policies which the government should address to fix the hole in its energy plans.
1. Reduce demand in the power sector
The government has never taken power saving seriously, even though the cheapest power station is the one we never have to build. Over the summer, the Department for Energy and Climate Change announced that we could reduce our electricity needs by 40% by 2030. Coincidentally, that's exactly the percentage of our electricity mix that they envisage coming from nuclear power.
This study, by consultants McKinsey, suggests that by 2030, our unconstrained electricity demand is likely to rise to 411 TWh. It foresees the potential for 155TWh of efficiency savings, across the residential, industrial and service sectors, of which just 54TWh (35% of potential) is set to be realised by current policies.
If McKinsey are right, then our total electricity demand could fall to 256TWh.
The measures needed to deliver that aren’t revolutionary – they include switching to LED lighting, better insulation and pump, motor and boiler optimisation. Nor do we need to realise savings of the whole 40% to make nuclear redundant. But as we’ll see, getting a grip on how much power we use is critical because it makes it easier for renewables to fill the gap.
2. Renewables can meet most of our electricity needs
Renewables could be a massive success story for the UK. We've got more wind resources than we know what to do with. An analysis of all the available forecasts by Energydesk suggests that by 2016 onshore wind will be cheaper than gas, and by 2024 offshore wind will competitive too. The cost of solar and other technologies are also falling.
The Committee on Climate Change say that by 2030, it would be technically possible for renewables to provide 65% of our electricity – 298TWh of renewable electricity per year. That’s more electricity than we would need under the McKinsey demand reduction scenario, so by implementing some of their recommendations renewables could play an even greater part.
Their scenario does assume a considerable rump of new nuclear (which they say will cost £74/MWh – about half what EDF is said to want for Hinkley C) but they are also assuming that total electricity demand will be around 460 TWh. For comparison, a demand reduction scenario by Garrad Hassan has renewables generating up to up to 88% of our electricity and does not include nuclear power
3. Improving flexibility and integrating heat and power policy is key
Renewable electricity is inherently variable, although we are getting very good at predicting when the wind will blow and when it won't. To make sure we always have enough power, we need to make the power grid more flexible. One way to do this is with interconnectors to other countries, so we can sell power abroad when we have too much and buy more when we're running low. Other options could include investment in thermal and pump storage.
Another essential move would be to integrate our policies on heat and power, especially in the industrial sector. We can fit industrial plant with combined heat and power but we can also take advantage of the excess electricity generated on windy days to run heat-generating industrial processes on low-carbon electricity. The price of electricity already falls when the wind is blowing (£) so this should help energy intensive companies reduce their bills.
4. None of this will happen while we cling to nuclear
This is by no means the end of this conversation. Given the range of options open to us, we can quibble over exactly what percentage of our power comes from wind, and how many interconnectors we should build to Ireland or Norway. What is really important is that we have this conversation and that a credible, low-carbon and nuclear-free energy strategy emerges out of it.
The biggest barrier to this is the government’s commitment to making nuclear happen. This ideological support for nuclear is why free-market politicians advocate special treatment that other technologies can only dream of. It is why normally sensible Ministers twist the meaning of ‘subsidy’ to square populist commitments not to support nuclear with the circular argument that new reactors cannot wash their own faces.
The only thing less likely than the government dropping its desire to make nuclear happen is the idea that there will be ten new nuclear reactors by 2025. If ministers and civil servants accepted that and put the effort they’ve expended keeping nuclear on track towards a range of alternative policies a clean, renewable future would be possible.
Viewpoint pieces reflect the view of the writer and/or their organisation.