By Jason Deign
A surprise U-turn over a UK nuclear power plant has ignited debate over whether renewables, backed by storage, might not be a better alternative.
Last month the UK’s new, post-Brexit administration raised eyebrows after announcing a further review of Hinkley Point C, a controversial nuclear power plant that was supposed to have been given the final go-ahead on July 29.
UK officials rushed to issue assurances after the postponement threatened to spark tensions with China and France, the international partners in the GBP£18bn project.
“The UK needs a reliable and secure energy supply and the government believes that nuclear energy is an important part of the mix,” soothed Greg Clark, business, energy and industrial strategy secretary, in press reports.
The government said it would now make its final decision “in early autumn,” he said.
A backtrack on the nuclear commitment?
It is unclear whether the setback is an indication that the UK government, now led by Theresa May, intends to backtrack on the nuclear commitment made by the previous administration.
Although May is said to be less enthusiastic about the project than her predecessor and French partner EDF Energy has wobbled over the benefits of moving forward with the plant, a final ‘no’ could sour trade relations with China.
However, the delay in moving forward with the plans has heightened debate over the cost of the project… and whether renewables with storage might not be a better option in the long term.
Hinkley Point C was originally set to benefit from a contract for difference guaranteeing £92.50 per MWh of energy produced.
Wind and solar to be cheaper
But the UK government itself expects wind and solar power to be cheaper than this by the time the plant is built, coming in at around £50 to £75 per MWh.
Meanwhile Bloomberg New Energy Finance has calculated that “Britain could scrap the … nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point and get the same amount of electricity from offshore wind turbines for roughly the same investment.”
The analyst firm’s calculations predict the nuclear reactor’s price tag could buy 5.7GW of offshore wind, almost twice the generating capacity of Hinkley Point C, which would provide roughly the same output a year.
Getting the same output from onshore wind, a more mature renewable technology, would be much cheaper.
Bloomberg said: “The … assessment includes only the capital cost of erecting various forms of generation, not operating expenses or the price of fuel.
Sidestepping the question of storage
“It also sidesteps the question of what would have to be invested to create storage at a giant scale capable of smoothing out power delivered from renewables when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.”
But an opinion piece in influential business daily The Telegraph this month pooh-poohed the idea that storage costs might be a barrier to renewables integration on the UK grid.
“Research into cheap and clean forms of electricity storage is moving so fast that we may never again need to build 20th Century power plants in this country, let alone a nuclear white elephant such as Hinkley Point,” it said.
Other observers have expressed similar views.
Writing in Energy Post, University of Exeter MSc Energy Policy course director Bridget Woodman said the Hinkley Point C decision delay was an opportunity to re-think UK energy policy.
Measures to encourage renewable systems
“Now is the time to start considering … measures to encourage more flexible, smaller-scale, renewable systems incorporating demand-side measures and new technologies such as storage,” she said.
The debate has profound implications for the future of energy storage in the UK and elsewhere.
While Hinkley Point C has attracted significant criticism because of its potential cost to the public, energy storage has never benefited from subsidies in the UK and support for renewables generally is rapidly being phased out.
If it can be shown that renewables and storage can deliver large-scale, base-load generation at a cost that beats nuclear, then there could be serious doubts about whether new reactors will ever be built.