David Elliott, Emeritus Professor of Technology Policy at the Open University, explains why renewables are the power of the future in the July 2021 column for Regional Life.
The flat landscape of the Dengie peninsula is punctuated by the massive grey blue hulk of the former Bradwell A nuclear power station and by a line of tall turbines. These two features graphically express the contrast between the demise of nuclear power and the rise of renewable energy: the past and the future of electricity generation.
Renewable energy, mainly wind and solar, is rising on the back of rapidly falling costs. Even the International Energy Agency, which has in the past been rather guarded about its potential, has switched over to seeing it as the main way ahead, supplying 90% of global electric power by 2050.
That is actually quite conservative compared to some projections for the UK: renewables are currently supplying over 43% of UK power and the Renewable Energy Association says that reaching 100% is possible by 2032. Indeed Scotland is already almost there. This raises the question of why we are still pursuing nuclear power, which just about everyone agrees is very much more expensive than wind and solar.
The recent BBC TV documentary series on construction work at Hinkley Point C power station in Somerset made stunningly clear the massive scale and environmental footprint of such nuclear projects. Especially notable was the vast amount of concrete that had to be poured, the production of which involves significant release of carbon dioxide gas. That is one reason why nuclear plants are not zero-carbon options, others being that mining and processing uranium fuel are energy and carbon-intensive activities.
By contrast, renewable energy systems like solar cells and wind turbines need no fuel to run and, although energy is needed to make the materials used in their construction, the net carbon/energy lifetime debt is less than for nuclear. One study suggested nuclear produces on average 23 times more emissions than onshore wind per unit electricity generated.
While there are debates about the carbon sums, it is clear that, globally, the generation economics favour renewables, with wind and solar racing ahead worldwide. And, despite indulging in a nuclear side dish, renewables are also the big, new thing in the UK, with offshore wind taking the lead. The Government’s stated aim is to generate ‘enough electricity from offshore wind to power every home by 2030’. That means many more offshore wind farms, off the East coast and also elsewhere around the UK.
With the other renewables also added in and more of them planned (we have 14GW of solar capacity so far) it is hard to see what the nuclear plants are for i.e. the 9GW or so of old plants and the new 3.2GW Hinkley Point C plant, much less any other proposed new ones. The nuclear lobby argues we need more nuclear plants to replace those that are being closed and also to back up renewables. It is hard to see how that could work, unless the new plants were flexible and able to compensate for the variable output of the 30GW or so of wind and solar capacity we have at present. As yet there are no plans to run the Hinkley Point C power station that way, or for that matter, the proposed 3.2GW Sizewell C. In which case, adding more nuclear will mean that at times of low demand some cheap renewable output, or some low cost flexible gas plant output, would have to be curtailed. What a waste! All of this to keep the £22bn Hinkley Point C, and any plants that follow, financially viable.
When completed by around 2026, Hinkley Point C will be guaranteed £92.5/MWh for power generated, almost twice what wind and solar may achieve by that time. The incongruity of that and the lack of room for more nuclear capacity, especially if Sizewell C goes ahead, may be why plans for the giant new Bradwell B nuclear power station seem to be faltering (quite aside from concerns about its Chinese design and also about China’s role in the UK’s sensitive infrastructure.)
We have been hearing that nuclear would be cheap for most of the last 60 years, whereas renewables were constantly billed as very expensive. That has now finally all changed. Indeed, some renewables seem headed for trivial costs. And renewables do not leave long-lived, highly radioactive wastes lying around indefinitely.
Which brings me back to Bradwell A. Although shut down in 2002 after 40 years’ operation, it will remain as a radioactive waste dump until the end of the century. If Bradwell B is ever built, it will remain dangerous until the end of the next century. The neighbouring turbines are better, easier, cheaper and cleaner than nuclear energy and leave nothing behind. Maybe eventually we will recognize that and avoid wasting any more time and money on the nuclear dead end.