Time to stop arguing and start decarbonising

It is difficult to draw any other conclusion from the new Climate Change Committee renewables report than that headlined by the BBC and the Telegraph – namely that nuclear power is highly cost-effective and essential to scale-up if the UK is to achieve its carbon-reduction targets. But before the antis reach for their green ink, let it also be said loud and clear: decarbonisation cannot be realistically envisaged without major upscaling and support for renewables too.

In essence, the report provides strong evidence for something which can never easily be conveyed in a headline: that a portfolio approach on energy technologies, employing the best and cheapest of everything, is the best way forwards. Many green groups are now beginning to converge around this idea, which was ably demonstrated in DECC’s recent ‘2050 pathways‘ modelling exercise. Even Friends of the Earth – despite the occasional relapse into traditional anti-nuclear posturing – seems to have got the message that realism in energy is the best approach to climate campaigning. There can be no ‘either-or’ thinking if we are to successfully get to grips with decarbonising our economies.

The headline on nuclear economics is actually quite an important issue, however. Look at the table below:

What is most striking is that not only is nuclear cheaper than all competing renewables, but that it is also potentially cheaper even than unabated gas (although this assumes a carbon price of course) out to 2030 with a 7.5% discount rate. This suggests that economics is not much of an issue as regards to the energy technology mix we eventually end up with – what is far more important is public acceptability. Both nuclear and onshore wind suffer a hardcore of determined opposition. This has locked wind up in planning battles for years, and could stymie nuclear completely. Although broadly public opinion favours nuclear and renewables, it is the hardcore – whose views are not amenable to change – who will most likely determine policy simply because they shout the loudest.

The report also helpfully scotches both some anti-nuclear and some anti-renewables myths. To start with the latter first, it is clear that the issue of intermittency (wind not generating on still days, solar cutting out at night etc) is not a deal-breaker. That is not to say that intermittency itself is a myth, for as the graph below shows, it is a very real issue indeed; merely that it is technically and economically manageable. (I’ve put this graph in larger to aid reading of the small print; you can find it on page 55 of the PDF report.)

Look at the red dashed line, bringing together all prospective 2030 renewables outputs, including wind, tidal, wave and solar. In an illustrative 2-day scenario, renewables generation dips to near-zero on two occasions, meaning no electricity is being generated at all. Does this mean the lights go out? No – if planned properly, demand mangement, interconnections with Europe and backup generation can deal with this question in a cost-effective way. According to the Committee, the financial penalty for dealing with intermittency is only something like 1p/kWh for additional renewable generation even up to 80% penetration in a 2050 scenario. So don’t believe the anti-windies who tell you that the turbines on hills and out at sea are useless because sometimes the wind stops blowing.

Don’t believe either the anti-nuclear types who tell you that nuclear power stations simply can’t be built fast enough to deal with climate change. This is a favourite of the Green Party – Caroline Lucas trots out the myth every time she discusses the issue. But myth it is, as a glance across the Channel indicates: France managed to open 48 GW of nuclear generating capacity over one 10-year period back in the 1980s, far more than anyone is suggesting for the UK at present. Indeed, the build-rate issue is more of an argument against new technologies like marine renewables, which are still in the R&D stage and are unlikely to make a significant contribution to UK energy until the 2nd half of the 2020s at the very earliest.

It is important to bear in mind when discussing the future that costs change, and that estimates of costs two to three decades from now will be necessarily imprecise. If the peak-oil doomsayers are right, then the economics of energy are about to change radically. Even if they are not (and I don’t think they are) then the changing cost of renewables technologies – and the possibile deployment of fourth-generation nuclear – will put us in a very different position in as little as a decade from where we are today. Currently, for example, solar PV is wildly expensive in a UK context, costing 31-46p/kWh, as compared to 8-9.5p/kWh for onshore wind and 6-10p/kWh for nuclear. But falling costs could, in an optimistic reading of the technology cost curve, bring solar PV on a level with wind, gas and nuclear as early as 2030.

So what does all this add up to? It is simple: nuclear and renewables need each other, and all need to compete on a level playing field which sees the climate cost of fossil fuels brought in via a moderate carbon price (around £70 per tonne), whilst emerging technologies like marine renewables are properly supported until they are ready to compete. As the Committee emphasises, we need to totally decarbonise the UK’s electricity sector by 2030, which is completely unfeasible economically without both additional nuclear build and large-scale deployment of offshore wind. Indeed, the Committee’s “illustrative scenario” includes an identical deployment of 40% for both nuclear and renewables by 2030 (with CCS at 15% and unabated gas at 10%).

The UK is in an unusual position internationally, in that it has highly ambitious climate mitigation targets, and a strong cross-party consensus domestically on the need to achieve them. There are also moves afoot – with a planned Green Investment Bank, and the sensible announcement of a £30 carbon price floor in the last budget – to structure the market in such a way as to deliver the needed investments. What we need to do now is to get on with building, and to stop the infighting between proponents of renewables and nuclear in particular. In many ways, both face the same constraints, in the form of a planning bureaucracy and public resistance to change which makes it difficult to do anything at all.

So let’s stop arguing and start getting on with transforming the country towards becoming the world-leader on climate change that it so clearly has the potential to be.

© Mark Lynas
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