Monday, May 21, 2012

The new Energy Bill should abandon support for nuclear newbuild

The draft Energy Bill expected this week should face the reality: it makes more sense to give 100% support to renewable electricity and energy efficiency than to continue trying to attract interest in expensive nuclear newbuild.

Last summer's Electricity Market Review White Paper assumed that the UK would soon have 16 GW of new nuclear capacity, with the first new nuclear reactor scheduled to become operational in 2018. Less than a year later, this now seems laughable.

The truth is that the ongoing fiscal crisis in the Eurozone means that the cost of capital is only going to rise. It is the high initial cost of new nuclear power stations and their long payback period that is the reason why nuclear operators are already pulling out. The coming fiscal firestorm will be the final nail in the coffin.

With the Government due to publish its new Energy Bill, now is the time for it to recognise this reality and stop trying to flog a dead horse. Otherwise, its pro-nuclear policy risks spending far more public money than it already has on feed-in tariffs for solar photovoltaics. It will make that amount of cash look like a drop in the ocean.

It's right for the Cabinet to worry, as it is doing, about whether the Green Deal will work. But it would be even more sensible to re-examine its policy on nuclear power - or it will start to look like the white elephant in the room.

EDF is the only nuclear operator with a modicum of credibility still in the running for newbuild, although Charles Hendry and the Financial Times would have you believe some Chinese operators are interested in Horizon. But with the advent of François Hollande, known to be lukewarm on nuclear power, to the French presidency, the enthusiasm of this 85%-French state-owned company for the construction of the most likely new plant at Hinckley point in Somerset is likely to cool.

EDF has already postponed the groundwork preparations for the site until next year while it waits to see what happens. The agreement which David Cameron signed on nuclear power with Nicolas Sarkozy in February is now not worth the paper on which it is written. It didn’t even represent much at the time.

Energy Minister Charles Hendry continues to talk up nuclear power, but he might as well be asking banks to invest in Spain. Two weeks ago he told the Nuclear Institute that RWE and E.ON’s decision to withdraw from Horizon's plans to build new power stations at Wylfa and Oldbury was “very disappointing", but he still hoped that the Energy Bill's proposed Contracts for Difference and other electricity market reforms would give investors the certainty they need to invest in new nuclear power.

You can understand why he wants to keep the Government’s options open. But it's a wise gambler who knows when to fold. The Government should instead put its limited resources in the service of solutions that have a much higher probability of working.

These resources include £13 million of DECC's budget currently spent on promoting nuclear power.

But, you say, what of the need to keep the lights on? There's more than one way to fit a lightbulb. Last year's White Paper's impact assessment argued that wind power, being easier to start up, would be turned off by system operators, in periods when it could generate and when demand is low, in preference to nuclear, because the latter is much more expensive to start up after shutdown.

This automatically penalises wind power and favours nuclear. Nuclear is seen as baseload, whereas wind, because of its intermittency, is not.

In the intervening time since the publication of the White Paper, more gas-powered generation has been consented. Because it can both supply baseload and is easy to start up and turn off, this gas-fired capacity negates the need for new nuclear power.

It also means that offshore wind power, tidal power (Peter Hain's new version of the Severn barrage that will be financed by private investment and produce as much as for nuclear power stations), as well as sustainable biomass, which includes anaerobic digestion, can be favoured over gas by system operators at times of low demand.

It also turns out that it is cheaper to strengthen the UK’s electricity grid connections with Europe (and this is being done anyway), widening the range of renewable sources of power, and to expand the facilities for balancing supplies with demand, than it is to build new nuclear plant. This will ensure that the lights stay on even if there is a flat calm over the UK for some time during the winter.

The Government can therefore support the provision of the maximum amount of renewable energy while maintaining a strategic reserve of gas-fired plants, together with a strategic reserve of fuels to power them.

And with the abandonment of nuclear newbuild, more capital and investment will be available for renewable energy, which will in many cases be quicker to build.

Cheaper electricity

A change in policy would also make future electricity costs lower for consumers.

This is because the Feed-In Tariff Contract for Difference policy is currently designed to benefit nuclear power the most, at a cost to consumers: the reduction in the cost of capital using this mechanism is, according to the EMR White Paper, 1.5% for nuclear, compared to 0.5%-0.8% for offshore wind; 0.5% for biomass; 0.4% for coal with CCS; and 0%-0.3% for onshore wind.

The proposed carbon price floor also benefits nuclear power far more than other technologies. The Treasury Secretary, Justine Greening MP, has admitted that the benefits to the existing nuclear sector are likely to be "an average of £50 million per annum to 2030 due to higher wholesale electricity prices".

WWF and Greenpeace together have calculated that the benefit could be much higher: up to £3.43 billion between 2013 and 2026, i.e., £264 million per year.

Therefore, if both of these policies were modified or abandoned in the new Energy Bill, electricity prices in the future would be lower.

Next week’s Bill will contain these policies, but it is only a draft. It doesn’t have to remain this way.

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