By Dave Elliott
The All Energy Conference in Scotland, despite its title, usually focuses on renewables but, some feel provocatively, it has of late also included sessions on nuclear. A petition was raised against this, with over 1,700 signatories, but an ecumenical approach does have its attractions – we get to hear from all the contenders and can form an impression of the overall state of play. Better surely than a partisan ‘no platform’ stance?
At this year’s gathering in Glasgow, Labour’s former shadow energy minister Tom Greatrex, now chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, said that the UK nuclear industry was moving from ‘making a case’ to the start of delivery. But he also said that ‘the scale of the challenge we have in our future energy generation is so huge that it needs pretty much every tool in the box’. So we had to move away from ‘people advocating their own technology by denigrating others’. The energy debate has ‘been very focused on the technology vs technology perspective’, in part ‘driven by old well-established prejudices that some people have about particular sources of energy. The challenge is to get beyond that, to have that wider more thoughtful, more logical debate. We’ve seen in the last six years 24GW of capacity that’s gone offline most of that is thermal – some of it nuclear – but mostly thermal. It has got to the end of its life. Over the next 10 years, a whole load more will. It can’t all be replaced by renewable generation’.
Make of that what you will! Must we really back everything? For example, elsewhere Prof Sir David King said DECC should focus its limited subsidy budget on offshore wind.
However, the reality for most renewables overall for the moment may be a bit bleak. At the All Energy conference the Renewable Energy Association’s chief executive Nina Skorupska indicated the strains that are facing renewables in the UK. She said the number of people employed in the UK renewables industry, currently 117,000, may fall over the coming years due to continued policy uncertainty: ‘It may be painful and some companies have already left the scene. There may be a few years of looking over our shoulders enviously at other countries. We need to get back to innovation and find new business cases. The subsidies era may be coming to a premature and abrupt end but the need for renewables has not.’
Meanwhile, a new report from SmartestEnergy takes a somewhat more optimistic view. It says independent generators now supply 7.6% of UK power, having invested over £376m in commercial-scale projects last year, adding 2.4 GW of new renewable capacity. Robert Groves, CEO of SmartestEnergy said ‘traditional electricity supply companies are in no shape to deliver the change that is needed. The Big Six are suffering in this low-carbon transition – share prices and dividends are falling, companies are laying off staff and some are even breaking themselves up. These incumbents are slow moving, beset by problems, and lack funds for investment.’ By contrast, ‘the energy entrepreneurs are small, nimble and innovative. They have attracted a global pool of capital to invest in Britain’s renewable capacity and are taking advantage of technologies like wind and solar which are rapidly coming down the cost curve. They are starting to invest in battery storage which will play a key role in our future energy system and offers exciting new business opportunities’.
PV solar is one of the growth areas. Responding to the late Prof Sir David MacKay’s final video, in which he was dismissive of PV in the UK and backed nuclear, Leonie Greene, head of external affairs at the Solar Trade Association, commented: ‘There is striking consensus now in the energy industry about the shape of a clean energy system and it is smart, highly distributed, much more active on demand-management and centred around consumers who may also be producers. The technological challenges Professor Mackay defined are readily surmountable and the plummeting costs of renewables are our best hope of averting dangerous climate change.’
The new Get it from the Sun initiative seeks to push this all on, backed by the Nuclear Free Local Authorities group. PV does seem to be roaring ahead globally as costs continue to fall. For example, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority has received bids for the 800 MW Sheikh Maktoum Solar Park Phase III as low as 3 US cents/kWh.
So what happens next? If it is just left to the market then PV and wind may well dominate globally in time, while coal will slide out of the picture, though that is partly since the concerns about emissions have led to regulatory interventions in some countries. Nuclear still gets pushed in some countries, as does gas. So it’s still more of everything, although with renewables doing quite well globally and even still holding their own in the UK, despite the cutbacks.
What does the public think? What are the priorities? In the UK, 81% back renewables in DECC’s latest Public Attitudes Survey, which also found that 70% saw a clear UK economic benefit from renewables, with 56% being happy with a large-scale project in their local area. Onshore wind had 69% of the public’s support, offshore wind 76%, and marine energy rose to 77%. Solar was at 84%, biomass 63%. Opposition to renewables was very low at 4%, with only 2% strongly opposed. Views on renewable heat were mixed, with poor awareness of the issues and options, and some were fairly critical or unsure e.g. about the value of biomass boilers and heat pumps. They were only a bit clearer about shale gas: 31% opposed fracking, 19% supported it, most were don’t knows. And finally, 38% supported nuclear energy (1% less than last year) compared with 23% who were opposed. 36% were neutral.
The UK is still one of the more pro-nuclear countries, although there is no shortage of proposals for non-nuclear UK low carbon scenarios, including some recent ones which claim that renewable would be cheaper and better than Hinkley: e.g. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2016/mar/18/five-ways-to-power-the-uk-that-are-far-better-than-hinkley-point https://aeeuk.egnyte.com/dl/SnQx7GZZbC and http://www.newweather.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Toxic-Time-Capsule.pdf
Certainly there are many alternatives which, arguably, could be freed up if the focus wasn’t so relentlessly on nuclear at all costs. CCS seem to have gone on the back burner for now, but that was uncertain anyway and most of the renewables are far more advanced. Time to refocus?