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.


  1. Larry Davis

    I wholeheartedly agreed that we must decarbonize as quickly as possible! It is a political problem not a technical one although economics will certainly play its role.

    So what can replace base load capacity? The answer is a combined and comprehensive energy strategy – not just one energy source alone as Mark has pointed out…

    That strategy requires a posthaste effort to implement at scale: Energy Efficiency including Combined Heat & Power (CHP) (no end in sight to improvements here according to leading science on topic); Energy Storage; Distributed Energy Microgrids smartly tied into national grid infrastructure; and Clean sources of Renewable Energy.

    If you think that there isn’t enough renewable energy and that it can’t be done see this video:

    [ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpwBGu-01lA ] ‘NASA Scientist Says Efficiency is Key to Ending Oil Dependence’ – Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia discusses renewable energy sources including salt water algae and the British bioreactor to produce fuel…

    His PowerPoint presentation can be found here:

    [ http://www.authorstream.com/Presentation/Techy_Guy-38039-dennis-Precis-Post-Petroleum-Energetics-Including-Seawater-Agriculture-CO2-levels-greater-as-Education-ppt-powerpoint/ ] ‘Precis of Post-Petroleum Energetics Including Seawater Agriculture‘ – Dr. Dennis Bushnell a chief scientist at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, 2006.

    A DVD of Dr. Bushnell’s PowerPoint presentation can be purchased here:

    [ http://www.lightworksav.com/conferenceonfutureenergyiiseries-cofeii-vol1precisofpost-petroleumenergeticsincludingseawateragriculturedvd.aspx ]

    See these important proceedings from the FFF’s energy workshop: ‘Energy Challenges: The Next Thousand Years’ – Foundation For the Future, 2007:

    [ http://www.futurefoundation.org/programs/hum_wrk4.htm ] webpage
    [ http://www.futurefoundation.org/documents/hum_pro_energychallenges.pdf ] full report 34.9 MB
    [ http://www.futurefoundation.org/documents/HUM_ExecSum_EnergyChallenges_Web.pdf ] executive summary

    “The Foundation For the Future workshop “Energy Challenges: The Next Thousand Years” considered all potential sources and technologies for energy production over three time frames: the near term (rest of this century), the medium term (next few centuries), and the longer term (thousand-year future), as well as the challenges facing humans on the planet in developing and implementing self-sufficient strategies for energy. Sixteen prominent energy experts from around the world participated in the workshop to discuss renewable energy science and technologies anticipated to emerge during coming centuries.”

  2. Larry Davis

    Energy storage is an important component for all sources of energy and it is already routinely used for: increasing reliability; lowering costs; balancing load variations; storage of power when generation exceeds consumption on The Grid; etc. Keep in mind that these are methods to store power that has been already generated and otherwise would not be used and go to waste…

    Current costs range from about $500 to $1,500 per kilowatt of installed capacity and the historic trend in costs, just like solar power, have been declining steadily as technological efficiency and options have improved over time.

    The traditional methods most utilized are pumped hydroelectric storage and compressed air energy storage.

    Pumped hydroelectric storage has been around since the 1890s and efficiency ranges from 70 to 85 percent world capacity exceeds 90 Gigawatts. The United States installed storage capacity in 2006 was 21,461 Megawatts. An example can be seen here:

    [ http://www.tva.gov/sites/raccoonmt.htm ]

    For a table of Net Generation by state for Pumped hydroelectric storage see:

    [ http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epm/table1_15_a.html ]

    Compressed air energy storage has been around since the 1870s and depending on the system technology used may or may not require a source of heat to increase efficiency. Systems requiring heat typically use natural gas or waste industrial heat and operate at about 54 percent efficiency. Compressed air energy storage can reduce a natural gas turbine power plant fuel use by 40 percent. A compressed air energy storage example can be seen here:

    [ http://www.pbenergy.com/caes.htm ]

    A New York Times report on this plant can be found here:

    [ http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0CEEDE103DF93AA1575AC0A967958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=print ]

    There are a lot of other storage technologies, with batteries being the next most popular solution. For a couple of examples of battery storage systems go here:

    [ http://www.gvea.com/about/bess/ ] and,

    [ http://www.pdenergy.com/press_030911_california.html ]

    Pumped Heat Electricity Storage is another interesting solution which is as efficient as pumped hydroelectric. See:

    [ http://www.isentropic.co.uk/index.php?page=storage ]

    For an expanded list of electricity storage technologies go here:

    [ http://electricitystorage.org/tech/technologies_technologies.htm ] and here:

    Click the “ESS Project Reports” link on this webpage:

    [ http://www.sandia.gov/ess/overview.html ]

    Where you can find several detailed reports like this one:

    [ http://prod.sandia.gov/techlib/access-control.cgi/2010/100815.pdf ] – Energy Storage for the Electricity Grid: Benefits and Market Potential Assessment, Guide A Study for the DOE Energy Storage Systems Program.

    Another report on energy storage by the Department of Energy’s Electricity Advisory Committee can be found here:

    [ http://www.oe.energy.gov/DocumentsandMedia/final-energy-storage_12-16-08.pdf ] – Bottling Electricity: Storage as a Strategic Tool for Managing Variability and Capacity Concerns in the Modern Grid.

    You might also want to take a glimpse at the 2010 G-20 Clean Energy Factbook report on who’s winning the clean energy race…

    [ http://www.pewtrusts.org/uploadedFiles/wwwpewtrustsorg/Reports/Global_warming/G-20%20Report.pdf ]

    Here are a couple of quick excerpts:

    “China took the top spot for overall clean energy finance and investment in 2009, pushing the United States into second place.”

    “Even though overall clean energy finance and investment in the United States more than doubled during the past five years, its growth rate lagged behind five other G-20 countries: Turkey (178 percent), Brazil and China (148 percent each), the United Kingdom (127 percent) and Italy (111 percent).”

    Opportunity lost!

  3. Larry Davis

    Unfortunately, I cannot concur with your conclusions on nuclear power in its current state of development – even with so-called third generation “Advanced Designs.” Here is why…

    The ‘UK Electricity Generation Cost Update’, June 2010 by Mott MacDonald found here:

    [ http://www.decc.gov.uk/assets/decc/statistics/projections/71-uk-electricity-generation-costs-update-.pdf ]

    is very much akin to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s ‘Levelized Cost of New Generation Resources’ in the ‘Annual Energy Outlook 2011’ found here:

    [ http://www.eia.doe.gov/forecasts/aeo/ ] (use Analysis – By Topic for quick reference) and,
    [ http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo/electricity_generation.html ]

    in that: “Externalities relating to environmental and social impacts of construction, operation and fuel supply chains are excluded, except to the extent that they are internalised through the carbon price.” – ‘UK Electricity Generation Cost Update’, June 2010 by Mott MacDonald pg. 74.

    So the current costs and projected costs claim to be based upon lifecycle considerations but completely ignore the costs of: spent nuclear fuel storage or reprocessing and nuclear waste.

    Why should this be the case? Quite simply, because they are uncertain and if they are included nuclear power’s cost estimates it makes nuclear power completely uneconomical.

    MacDonald states on pg. 38: “Once built, nuclear plants have comparatively low operational costs” which has been proven. However they then go on to say that: “This cost excludes any allowance for back-end storage and disposal. Allowing for spent fuel to be taken to an off-site temporary storage adds another $1-2/MWh. This means that substantial costs for waste treatment and storage, can be deferred at least until the plant shuts down. Decommissioning costs, including waste disposal are significant but are projected to occur perhaps some 100 years after operations start. In present value terms these costs become comparatively small.”

    There is no justification given to minimize these back end liabilities or reach these kind of conclusions based upon current costs and past history this is misleading at its best…

    Another example: The U.S. Annual Energy Outlook 2011’s analysis for nuclear power states that; “High construction costs for nuclear plants, especially relative to natural-gas-fired plants, make other options for new nuclear capacity uneconomical even in the alternative electricity demand and fuel price cases.” See:

    [ http://www.eia.doe.gov/forecasts/aeo/MT_nuclear.cfm ]

    And current construction costs in the U.S. and UK as projected concur: “…current overnight prices for plant ordered in early 2010, are in the range of $4500 to $6750/kW, with a best estimate of $5750/kW” – MacDonald pg. 36; and “…the current projected costs of reactors in the U.S. are literally all over the map, with the 2008-2009 cost estimates clustering in the $4,000 to $6,000/kW range” section II, pg. 5 – ‘Policy Challenges of Nuclear Reactor Construction, Cost Escalation and Crowding Out Alternatives, Lessons from the U.S. and France for the Effort to Revive the U.S. Industry with Loan Guarantees and Tax Subsidies’ – Mark Cooper, Senior Fellow for Economic Analysis, Institute for Energy and the Environment, Vermont Law School, September 2010. See:

    [ http://www.vermontlaw.edu/Documents/Cost%20Escalation%20and%20Crowding%20Out%20Exec%20Sum.pdf ] executive summary
    [ http://www.vermontlaw.edu/Documents/IEE/20100909_cooperStudy.pdf ] full study

    Constructions times and build out for nuclear power pales in comparison to renewable energy sources. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute (www.rmi.org) when ask if we can solve the problem of climate change without nuclear power responds:

    “Of course! Not only that, but we could do so more effectively and more cheaply. It is quite true that if a nuclear plant displaces a coal plant that would replace carbon emissions. But if you spent the same money on efficiency, renewables and combined heat and power, you would reduce the carbon emissions by about two to ten times more and about 20 to 40 times faster. So nuclear is such a slow and costly climate solution, it actually reduces and retards climate protection, compared with a best buys first approach.”

    Lovins made a presentation to the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2006 which showed data that nuclear power is not a necessary step in the fight against climate change. Lovins’ data shows that distributed and renewable energy provide sufficient energy without the unnecessary costs and risks incurred by nuclear power. See:

    [ http://rmi.org/rmi/Library/E06-04_NuclearPowerCompetitiveEconomics ] ‘Nuclear Power: Competitive Economics and Climate Protection Potential’ – Amory Lovins, 2006.

  4. Larry Davis


    IPCC 11th Session of Working Group III, 5-8 May 2011

    Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation

    Potential of Renewable Energy Outlined in Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

    Experts Underline Significant Future Role in Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Powering Sustainable Development

    Over 160 Scenarios on the Potential of six Renewable Energy Technologies Reviewed by Global Team of Technological Experts and Scientists

    [ http://srren.ipcc-wg3.de/ ] webpage with video
    [ http://srren.ipcc-wg3.de/press ] press release
    [ http://srren.ipcc-wg3.de/report ] report summary webpage
    [ http://srren.ipcc-wg3.de/report/srren-spm-fd4 ] report summary

    The Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (SRREN), agreed and released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on May 9th in Abu Dhabi, assesses existing literature on the future potential of renewable energy for the mitigation of climate change. It covers the six most important renewable energy technologies, as well as their integration into present and future energy systems. It also takes into consideration the environmental and social consequences associated with these technologies, the cost and strategies to overcome technical as well as non-technical obstacles to their application and diffusion.

  5. scas

    Mark – I agree with everything you have to say, although I wonder why you disagree with the peak oil doomsayers. I recommend Matt Simmons Twilight In the Desert and Kenneth Deffeyes Hubberts Peak, if you haven’t already read them. I’ve seen differing opinions from others
    too – Monbiot who thinks we have too much oil, and Gwen Dyer who thinks oil prices will crash. But what of opinions from people like Robert Hirsch, author of the Hirsch report? Have you read it?


    Personally, I think that economic and population growth, resource depletion, and environmental factors will cause us to run out of steam in the transition to to a low-carbon environment-neutral society. Increased pollution from coal burning is masking global warming so that we don’t detect the true extent until we clean up our pollution or suffer an economic crash due to an oil crisis/war/pandemic. The ESAS and it’s potential for abrupt climate change might throw a wrench in the works too.

    I generally agree with the peak oil doomsayers. Transport and agriculture require high volumes of cheap oil. If peak oil dates are correct, then we will be entering the oil downslope around 2012-2015. This will occur at a time when populations are growing to 9 billion by 2050, and temperature anomolies by then are sure to have affected soils and farmlands, increasing the need for fertilizers and deforestation.

    How much liquid crude does it take to maintain a renewable and nuclear infrastructure, plus agriculture and transport system? Yes, we will get a few electric cars and scooters, but there are still 250 000 000 internal combustion vehicles in the USA, China is building 4000 km of roads a year, and even Indias Nanos will add up. Perhaps many of the vehicles could be electric, but roads and vehicle infrastructure inevitably require more fossil fuels.

  6. Steve Darden

    Mark – good work on the CCC report, especially your focus on decarbonising now. Are you coming around to the view of the contributors to The Hartwell Paper: A new direction for climate policy after the crash of 2009 (LSE Mackinder Programme/INSIS, University of Oxford)? I.e., that our priority must be on achieving decaronisation? (rather than negotiating meaningless PPM goals)

    If you are not yet sympathetic to this view, I recommend Roger Pielke’s recent book The Climate Fix. It is a quick Kindle read, making I thought a compelling case for fast, practical action that is politically feasible.

  7. New York AREA

    Your comment – “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” is oh so true.

    Advocates of all types of power are needed to voice opinions that oppose the loud but few who oppose everything.

    In New York, we’re working with business, labor, and government to try to be a voice for the majority of folks that realize that all forms of energy generation have pros and cons. I rational look at choices and solutions is needed over the hardcore and loud.

  8. Scott

    Just end CAFO and change to MIRG and in 10 years all the carbon emitted since the dawn of the industrial age will be sequestered in the soil.

    End conventional agronomy and you could sequester all that carbon even faster.

    You guys are all dancing around the real issue.

    The main holdup? Training farmers how to do it and a MAJOR propaganda machine paid for by those financially tied to current agricultural models.


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