Britain's First Nuclear Power Plant In A Generation Isn't A Great Deal, But Neither Are The Alternatives
- Oct 10, 2014 10:59 am GMT
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The European Commission announced this week that Britain’s first new nuclear power plant for over twenty years does not violate state aid laws, and it now appears certain that it will be built. Hinkley C has been described as the “most expensive power plant ever built“, “extremely expensive” and a “bad deal for consumers” by the usual assortment of green voices. Yet, the strike price agreed between the UK government and EDF for this power plant is no different to that agreed for onshore wind farms, less than it is for solar power and far less than for offshore wind.
So, how is Hinkley C the most expensive power plant ever and a bad deal for consumers? Would consumers be better off if the UK government instead paid offshore wind farms £150/MWh for intermittent electricity as it is currently doing, instead of £92.50/MWh to a nuclear power plant for baseload electricity? Strangely, such important questions are not asked in the debate about the costs of this power plant. Or at least they are not asked by the loudest voices in the debate. Honest appraisals of this deal are in low supply.
Let’s get some simple things out of the way. This is a poor deal that has mostly resulted from political incompetence and mismanagement. Paying a French state owned company a guaranteed price of £92.50/MWh, and relying on a state owned Chinese firm to weigh in with a few billion in capital does seem rather strange. A more rational policy would be for the UK government to do the investing.
It would also have been more rational to have allowed EDF, Toshiba and GE-Hitachi to compete to see which vendor could deliver the lowest cost. The history of AP1000 development, the Toshiba option, indicates that they easily would have beaten EDF on price. A mix of ideology and incompetence has resulted in a free-market UK government allowing a state owned company to build to a nuclear power plant without any outside competition. The absurdity of modern capitalism is in full flight here. However, you cannot undo past mistakes, and the EDF deal will go ahead.
But, what about the “green” alternatives? These are supposedly cheaper than the nuclear one. However, a close inspection indicates that this is far from the case.
First, let’s push the delusional idea of large scale solar energy in Britain to one side where it should remain. Hinkley C is a 3.2 GW nuclear power plant, which will have a capacity factor of around 90%. To deliver the equivalent energy with solar panels we would need at least 30 GW worth. 30 GW is far in excess of what Britain’s grid manager has told the British government it can accommodate on the grid. And to get it to 30 GW the UK would have to massively expand its interconnector capacity, otherwise managing grid frequency on bright summer weekends with low electricity demand will become a total nightmare. Feel good campaigns, such as putting solar panels on the roofs of British schools may warm the hearts of misguided green activists, but they will not solve our energy problems.
Onshore wind is a reasonably economical option, but one that is increasingly unfeasible both politically and socially. Replacing Hinkley C would require 10 GW of onshore wind capacity, plus around 3 GW of gas power plants for when it is not windy. The strike price for onshore wind is roughly the same as for Hinkley C, but this ignores the necessary cost of gas power plant back up and grid expansion. However, there does not appear to be a particularly strong economic argument either way.
Here though is onshore wind’s real problem. Wind farms take up a hell of a lot of space. Delivering a Hinkley C level of energy from wind farms will require an area of at least 1000 square kilometres to be covered in wind farms.
If you are skeptical of this figure, simply consider the recently opened London Array offshore wind farm. It is 100 square kilometres in size, with a capacity of 0.63 GW and an expected capacity factor of less than 40%. In other words, this 100 square kilometre wind farm will produce less than one tenth as much electricity as Hinkley C.
Hinkley C will also only provide 6.7% of UK electricity demand. Britain, then, would need an area at least the size of Wales to be covered in wind turbines to get close to 100% of its electricity from wind farms. And that is just electricity. Think about cars, heating, industry, these must be electrified as much as possible. An area the size of Wales will just be the start of it. Is this politically or socially possible? Almost certainly not. It was always inevitable that onshore wind farms in Britain would reach some limit; their visual intrusiveness is simply too great for such a densely populated country. And this limit has now almost been reached, with proposals by the current ruling part to put in place a de-facto ban on new onshore wind farms.
This leaves us with offshore wind. Currently it costs around £150/MWh, 50% more than nuclear or onshore wind. Not cheap, and there are few signs it is getting much cheaper. So, this is what saying no to nuclear on the basis of costs will result in: a bet that offshore wind will come down in price below that of nuclear energy. This is the latest in a long line of green wishful thinking. Even the most optimistic of forecasts suggest that offshore wind will remain more expensive than nuclear energy in the next decade or so.
Cost, however, is not what opposition to this power plant is really about. Green groups may now be insisting this is a bad deal for consumers, but this concern is never displayed when the costs of renewable energy is concerned. Which offshore wind farms are called the “most expensive” sources of energy in Britain? How many renewable energy projects have Friends of the Earth opposed on the basis of cost? Care to name one? The real motivation is fear of radiation, but for strategic reasons environmental groups have decided to stand behind the smokescreen of economics.
But here lies the more serious problem. If environmental groups convince the world that nuclear energy is too expensive they will likely also convince them that renewable energy is too expensive. This is the inevitable consequence of the intellectually dishonest strategies of contemporary environmental groups. We must always keep in mind Saul Bellow’s famous phrase, “there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.”