Renewables deliver wind of change to solve our electricity conundrum
We need to secure safe, affordable, low-carbon electricity to power industry, transport, homes, hospitals and businesses. The good news is that we can achieve this with renewable options – and, some argue, nuclear power. However, of the six designated sites for a new UK nuclear plant, three have been abandoned, two are in doubt and only Hinkley Point C is under construction.
Hitachi’s decision to quit the UK nuclear new-build stage is an obvious blow. But does it signal a fundamental change in our energy policy?
Standard and Poor’s, the global credit rating agency, sees “little economic rationale for new nuclear build in the US or Western Europe, owing to massive cost escalations and renewables’ cost competitiveness, which should lead to a material decline in nuclear generation in those countries by 2040”.
Meanwhile, Lazard, the asset management firm, says the cost of large-scale wind and solar is a fraction of that of new nuclear, even if the cost of decommissioning or the ongoing maintenance for nuclear is excluded. Bloomberg New Energy Finance shows market prices for renewables broadly similar to Lazard’s.
Very recent UK government reports and earlier parliamentary committees agree with market analysis.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has just confirmed that renewables would be at least one third cheaper than a Hinkley C-type nuclear project, even without the cheapest available storage technologies. The National Audit
Office said that the economic case for new nuclear at Hinkley Point C was both “risky and expensive for the UK taxpayer and energy consumer”.
Meanwhile, the National Infrastructure Commission reported that new renewable energy represented the least cost for consumers.
Perhaps the key argument for new nuclear is that it might help meet our carbon reduction commitments. But climate change poses a number of unique challenges.
One of the most difficult is that we need to be carbon-neutral and soon, otherwise the policy has failed. So it’s worrying EDF admits that it will take 20 years after Sizewell C starts construction to pay off its own carbon bill. Not only that, but the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers has voiced concerns that “projected sea level rise could significantly redraw the map of the UK, as well as power station sites such as Sizewell”.
It adds: “Nuclear sites such as Sizewell, based on the coastline, may need considerable investment to protect against rising sea levels, or even abandonment and relocation in the long term.”
What to do? Well, the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit recommends that, as old nuclear comes offline, it is replaced with quick-to-build renewables. And this makes sense given, for the first time ever, solar and wind make up the majority of the world’s new power generation – marking a seismic shift.
Yes, we can modernise our electricity system and resolve the real energy trilemma – it’s an economic, technological and political win-win.
Dr Paul Dorfman is an honorary senior research fellow at the Energy Institute, University College London. In the past, he has worked as an adviser to the Government on nuclear issues