The winds of change should blow away nu­clear power plans

The Guardian - - OPINION -

The pre­cip­i­tous drop in the price of elec­tric­ity from off­shore wind tur­bines should be a tip­ping point for green tech­nol­ogy. In 2014 the cur­rent gen­er­ated by a for­est of gi­ant whirling fans out at sea was priced at around £150 per megawatt hour. In the lat­est auc­tion this week the com­pa­ra­ble cost dropped as low as £57.50/MWh. Even when the cost of pro­vid­ing back-up ca­pac­ity for still days is added, the cost of pro­duc­ing en­ergy from off­shore wind is lit­tle more than £70/MWh. Com­pared to the new Hink­ley C nu­clear plant which pro­duces elec­tric­ity at a cost of £92.50/ MWh, one has to won­der whether as a na­tion we should per­sist with nu­clear en­ergy as an op­tion to re­duce our green­house gas out­put.

Hink­ley looks like a di­nosaur even be­fore it arrives on earth. It’s un­clear whether the un­proven de­sign will ever get built. If it does, the cost of com­ply­ing with safety and anti-ter­ror­ism stan­dards may well be pro­hib­i­tive. Hink­ley was con­ceived when the con­ven­tional wis­dom was that we would start to run out of hy­dro­car­bons. Fears of a run­away price for oil and gas now look over­heated. The gov­ern­ment has how­ever sup­ported plans to in­stall a nu­clear power plant, backed by French and Chi­nese state op­er­a­tors, cost­ing £18bn. Nu­clear power has a trump card: it is a zero-car­bon tech­nol­ogy which de­liv­ers a con­tin­u­ous, un­in­ter­rupted sup­ply. This may be a con­sid­er­a­tion in the years ahead if the UK banned petrol engines and only al­lowed elec­tric cars. Imag­ine, say nu­clear fans, the surge of de­mand when ev­ery­one got home and plugged in their mo­tors. But we are not there yet.

Driv­ing all this is Bri­tain’s Cli­mate Change Act, which stip­u­lates that by 2050 the coun­try’s net emis­sions of green­house gases should be 80% lower than in 1990. The lat­est “car­bon bud­get” sets a cap on emis­sions be­tween 2028 and 2032 and re­quires a 57% re­duc­tion in emis­sions by 2030. In this piece of work it was rec­om­mended that the power sec­tor re­duced the amount of car­bon pro­duced per unit of en­ergy to less than 100g of car­bon diox­ide per kilo­watt hour. It also con­sid­ered what would hap­pen if the UK de­car­bonised with­out nu­clear power and cal­cu­lated that this car­bon in­ten­sity limit would be breached by 20%. But the com­mit­tee did not en­vis­age how quickly the cost of elec­tric­ity gen­er­ated by off­shore wind would fall, which sug­gests a greater role for it at the ex­pense of nu­clear power.

So it is wor­ry­ing that we have not heard a whis­per from min­is­ters about a clean growth plan to meet emis­sion tar­gets that takes into ac­count the cost-ef­fec­tive­ness of wind. In­stead, on­shore tur­bines are cur­rently banned. The last round of off­shore wind con­tracts spent less than two-thirds of the bud­get al­lo­cated. Auc­tions for so­lar power last took place in 2015. Ex­perts warn of a pal­pa­ble chill­ing of the in­vest­ment cli­mate for re­new­ables in the UK. Amaz­ingly, un­der cur­rent plans nu­clear spend­ing will rise to five times that of off­shore wind by 2025. Min­is­ters are look­ing at nu­clear deals with Ja­pan and South Korean firms. Facts should drive Bri­tain’s en­ergy plans, not wish­ful think­ing about sug­ar­ing pu­ta­tive trade deals in Asia once the UK leaves the Euro­pean Union. Pol­icy needs to boost, not re­strain, re­new­ables. Eco­nomics has sealed the fate of re­dun­dant tech­nolo­gies be­fore: last year, thanks to a car­bon tax – for the first time – the UK gen­er­ated more elec­tric­ity from wind tur­bines than from burn­ing coal. Green­house gas emis­sions in the UK have now fallen to lev­els barely seen since the reign of Queen Vic­to­ria. In the com­ing weeks min­is­ters must open the door to a greener, cleaner fu­ture where Bri­tain meets green­house gas tar­gets with­out more ex­pen­sive nu­clear plants.

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