Dave Elliott, Emeritus Professor of Technology Policy at the Open University, argues that renewables, not nuclear power, are the way forward for energy as our guest writer for the BANNG Column for Regional Life, May 2019
The Sun newspaper recently ran an article claiming that ‘Britain will face power cuts unless the Government steps up plans to build more nuclear energy plants’ (16 March), a view reflected in a parallel Daily Mirror article which talked of fears over ‘energy shortage and lights going out’ (17 March). So, the argument goes, we need nuclear power as part of the energy mix.
What seems to have escaped both papers is that electricity use has fallen significantly in the UK in recent years: so we do not need costly new nuclear plants. UK electricity use is now back to 1994 levels. This is partly owing to the success of energy saving programmes, and has occurred despite 18% economic growth over the period.
It is true that, as we phase out coal use (all of it is planned to go by 2025), and as the old nuclear plants close, we will need more energy inputs, but there is no shortage of low-cost, green energy options. The cost of renewables has fallen dramatically. Onshore wind and PV solar, which are now both vying to be the lowest cost energy sources of all, are already able to deliver power at around half the cost of the power that may be produced if the Hinkley Point C nuclear project is completed.
However, the Government has opposed onshore wind and has pulled support for PV solar. So we are left with new nuclear, offshore wind and some large controversial biomass projects, including some using forestry-derived wood pellets imported from the USA. Offshore wind is fine, with costs falling, and there are some very large schemes going ahead such as those in the North Sea clearly visible from Bradwell. We already get a third of our electricity from renewable energy projects like this, and, given proper support for onshore wind and PV, we might get to near 100% by 2050.
Cut carbon, boost renewable electric power
However, the real problem is not electricity use, but heat and transport energy. We have not done at all well there so far. As for heating, the Government wants us to switch from using North Sea gas for heating, to using electricity to run domestic heat pumps – so out goes your old gas-fired central heating boiler unit and in comes an expensive new bit of kit. That, it is proposed, will be mandatory for all new houses from 2025. For transport, the plan is to switch over to using electric vehicles. All of this means more electricity will be needed – a lot more. Shifting from gas to electricity supplied by the grid will be hard – if not impossible, even with a lot of new nuclear plants and major grid expansion.
There is an alternative. If we went for a very large renewables programme, scaled up to meet power demand most of the time, then, since renewable outputs and demand vary, at times there would be surplus output – when that from wind and solar was high but demand for power low. That surplus power could be used to make carbon-free hydrogen gas by the electrolysis of water. That ‘green gas’ could be stored, with some of it being used later to make electricity again, when there were lulls in wind and solar availability. Some of it could also be fed into the gas main, instead of fossil gas, to supply heat. So we would keep the gas grid and you could keep your boiler, although some adjustments would have to be made, as happened when we switched from the old Town gas, made from coking coal, to North Sea gas in the 1970s.
In urban areas there would be a role for heat networks – district heating, fed by biomass or green gas-fired Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants, with large heat stores, topped up by solar heat, as is done in Denmark. CHP plans are flexible – they can help with balancing the variable output from renewables. And needless to say, energy waste would be squeezed out of the system – by improved buildings and the more efficient use of energy.
As for transport, while electric cars have their appeal, if using green electricity, we should really be thinking more of public transport, trains and trams, and, for heavy vehicles (trucks, tractors, buses), biogas and hydrogen are arguably better fuels. Green gas from the grid would be available which could be topped up with biogas made from domestic food, municipal and farm wastes. It is harder to see a way forward for aircraft, which currently use untaxed fossil fuels but there is a race on between systems using battery power and those using biofuel/hydrogen. Ships could use the latter- some already use LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) instead of marine diesel.
The simple message from all this is that we do not need nuclear – renewables can do it all. It is conceivable that nuclear could do some of it – using nuclear plants at night, when power demand is low, to make hydrogen. However, quite apart from all their other problems, nuclear plants are not suited to frequent rapid changes in power output, so they would be no use in balancing variable renewables. By contrast, the system described above, based on direct and indirect forms of solar energy, could meet all our needs for power, heat and transport – all without the need for fossil fuel or any new nuclear power stations.