We need to generate an energy revolution

To transform society, we need cheap, abundant power. Let's get on with it.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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After years of dithering, negotiations and reviews, it finally looks like a new nuclear power plant will be built in the UK – the first since Sizewell B on England’s east coast started generating power in 1995. But the news is cause for relief, not celebration.

The new plant, to be built on the site of two existing stations at Hinkley Point, will cost nearly £25 billion to build and won’t start generating power until well into the 2020s. The plant’s operators, EDF, have been guaranteed a price for electricity that is roughly double the current price, a guarantee that will last at least 35 years. Even now, having got the go-ahead from the EU, Hinkley Point C may be blocked by objections from other EU countries over excessive state aid. But even this much-delayed and wildly expensive power station is still a step forward. Maybe next time, the UK government will learn to negotiate a better deal. If it can’t, Hinkley Point could be the start and end of the nuclear revival.

The pressing need for new nuclear power stations was confirmed earlier this week, when it was reported that cracks had been found in two of the 3,000 graphite bricks in the core of one of the reactors at the Hunterston B nuclear power plant in Scotland. The news has led to suggestions that Britain’s ageing gas-cooled nuclear reactors, which have had as many career revivals as Bruce Forsyth, may not keep going as long as hoped, possibly exacerbating a supply crunch. But it’s the cracks in UK energy policy that we should really be worried about.

Britain is already facing an uncomfortable few years where peak energy demand will be only marginally smaller than peak energy supply. For the past few years, and for some time to come, Britain will be closing power stations rapidly. Some are nuclear power stations that are coming to the end of their lives, but others are fossil-fuel stations that are being closed because they don’t meet emissions standards. The EU’s Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD) means coal- and oil-fired power stations must strict meet (non-carbon) pollution standards. Many of these plants could have been upgraded, but in any event, the UK has already committed to producing 15 per cent of all energy requirements from renewable sources by 2020 – which in effect means 30 per cent of electricity will need to come from renewables. The result is that many older coal and gas stations would be out of business even if what came from their chimneys was scrubbed clean.

One consequence of all these commitments and plant closures is that, this coming winter, the gap between peak demand and peak generation will be small. By next winter, the gap will be as little as four per cent. Given that currently four power stations are out of action, the risk of shortfalls is substantial. However, the lights are unlikely to go out in our homes thanks to a series of emergency measures, which include the ability to bring mothballed coal and gas plants back online, and paying companies to not use electricity – a facility for which National Grid will have to pay those firms fairly handsomely. Moreover, the UK government is investing in more connectors with continental Europe so that shortfalls can be made up with French nuclear power, for example.

The problem has been years of indecision on the part of politicians, combined with an excessive obsession with climate change. The three fundamental requirements of an energy system are that the power is reliable, abundant and as cheap as possible. However, environmental concerns have muddied the waters.

A simple way to square the circle on climate change would have been to push for a mix of energy supply including a new wave of nuclear power stations, combined with increased use of gas and renewables. But for years, building new nuclear stations was ruled out on environmental grounds. (In Scotland, the SNP government is still committed to blocking new nuclear plants.) Eventually, kicking and screaming, new nuclear stations like the one planned at Hinkley Point, have been approved – but given the weak negotiating position that the government has with energy companies, the government has, to recycle an old quote from postwar Labour politician Nye Bevan, ‘stuffed their mouths with gold’.

In all this, realism and ambition have been absent.

Realism, in the sense that the only way in which Britain could hope to cut greenhouse-gas emissions while maintaining security of supply was to generate a substantial proportion of power from nuclear. Renewables are too expensive and too unreliable, and require backup from gas-powered stations for those times when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.

Ambition, because there seems to be little drive to produce energy cheaply and abundantly. For the economy to grow and for society to develop materially, we are going to need a lot more energy and at as low a cost as possible. Instead, planning for the future has been obsessed with producing only as much energy as necessary, with as few emissions as possible, while trying to force us to be as energy efficient as possible. While nuclear might finally be getting somewhere, the production of shale gas using fracking – which could be the simplest and cheapest way to get lower-carbon energy – is now being delayed by endless, mostly specious concerns from scaremongering protesters.

While solar and wind, in the right conditions, can and will make a useful contribution to energy supply in the future, they also have fundamental problems of unreliability that need to be solved. What we really need to do is to invest in researching technologies that could make really dramatic leaps forward in energy production. Yet the nearest thing to such an attempt right now – the ITER project to build a nuclear fusion power plant in France – has been bedevilled by delays, poor management and politicking.

Let’s put the holy trinity of cost, reliability and abundance back at the heart of energy policy, stop panicking about global warming (we can’t solve the problem overnight and we don’t need to) and start thinking long-term about revolutionising energy production – and the possibilities that could open up for society.

Rob Lyons is a columnist for spiked. He will be speaking at the debate Energy futures: how can we keep the lights on? at the Battle of Ideas festival, held at the Barbican in London on 18-19 October. Get tickets here.

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