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Non-nuclear UK energy futures

By Dave Elliott

Several non-nuclear energy scenarios for the UK have been produced recently, as I have reported in an earlier post, some of them in response to the perceived need for a ‘Plan B’, as an alternative to the Hinkley EPR project. Some new ones include a submission to the government by TASC, the Together Against Sizewell C campaign group, and a study by developer Green Hedge. They may have lost the first battle, with Hinkley going ahead, but their analysis remains relevant for whatever happens next e.g. in relation to the next projects, which include another EDF EPR at Sizewell.

TASC focuses on the demand side. It says that ‘energy policy has long focused on supplying projected demand by installing sufficient large-scale supply capacity without properly taking into account the significant savings which are achievable by encouraging and incentivising changes in the use and conservation of energy thereby reducing demand, and by small scale supply of energy’. And on the basis of an analysis of UK energy needs, which have been falling, it claims that ‘new nuclear power stations will in fact hamper the achievement of government energy policy objectives, and that a non-nuclear energy policy will more successfully achieve all government energy policy objectives’.

Its starting point is the Overarching National Policy Statement for Energy (EN-1), the first draft of which emerged in 2009, with a new version being produced in 2011. EN-1 said that ‘electricity generation may need to more than double’ by 2050 and ‘the government therefore anticipates a substantial amount of new generation will be required’, thus justifying the need for new nuclear plants. At the time ACE, the Association for the Conservation of Energy, tried to get more detail on the projected rise in demand, but DECC was only able to point to studies running up to 2024/5, although DECC subsequently made its 2050 Pathway analysis software available so that alternative scenarios could be tested.

Many groups had a go, including ACE, who in 2014 produced a report entitled Uncovered, with a series of pathways showing how ‘demand-side-led’ non nuclear pathways more successfully achieved government policy objectives than the government pathways, which involved more nuclear. The present TASC report updates the ACE analysis, taking into account the latest data and pointing to a series of ‘changed circumstances’ to justify a reassessment of EN -1. In 2010, a DECC official had said ‘using the 2050 calculator, we have published a pathway that shows that it is possible to meet the 80% [emission reduction] target without nuclear, but we have not suggested that it is desirable to do so’. TASC basically says that is no longer true, with the current fall in demand being the most obvious point.             

It is certainly true that electricity demand has fallen – by around 10% over the last decade. In projections in 2015 DECC, however, said it will rise again, by around 20% by 2035 as we electrify heating and transport with heat pumps and EVs. But that is only one option: there are other routes forward e.g. using biogas/syngas/surplus wind ‘power-to-gas’ conversion for (some) vehicle fuel and for heating. As well as, crucially, by cutting energy waste in all sectors, via insulation, better building design, upgraded end-use efficiency and smart-grid demand management.

The energy saving options are the major focus for ACE and TASC, who see them as the cheapest and easiest way forward, and they provide new scenarios and analysis to back that up. They note that the potential for electricity saving was not assessed by DECC until 2012 and the Government’s response (in which it was stated that there was potential to ‘save electricity equivalent to that generated by around four power stations in a year’) was not published until May 2013, long after the final EN-1 had been presented to, and approved by, Parliament. Whereas TASC’s new reworking of the DECC pathways, with 2014 DECC data and a non-nuclear, more demand-side-led approach, ‘leads to greater energy savings than the government’s pathways all of which involve new nuclear power’, negating EN-1 assertions about the need for nuclear. So EN1 has to be revised. It’s a complex analysis, but its point is clear: there are better cheaper options. 

In parallel with this study, but adopting a more supply-side approach, low carbon energy developer Green Hedge has analysed whether one could replicate the electricity generation of Hinkley Point C with a cheaper, equally low carbon combination of solar farms, wind farms,  energy storage and backup gas generation at costs that would allow their deployment today. The analysis shows it is possible at a price of only £75/MWh, 25% less than for Hinkley. This would save consumers £720 million per year, or £25 billion in today’s money over the 35-year contract term.

These conclusions are reached via a modelling exercise using National Grid data for supply and demand requirements. All the energy produced by solar PV and wind is modelled as being bought at an agreed power purchase agreement (PPA) price of £55/MWh, whether it is used to meet the demand or spilled because it exceeds base-load demand. In the event that the renewables cannot meet the energy demand, back-up gas plants are used, but do not need to run often so their emissions are low. The model uses larger green energy generators rather than domestic installations since, Green Hedge says, these tend to be most cost effective. It has been developing solar farms, energy storage projects and backup gas generators, so it says ‘we have had the advantage to cross-check the cost inputs with our own numbers. The prices used to make the business cases for the various technologies commercially viable are not just our estimates from looking at actual developments internationally but also represent the cost at which we ourselves would realise new projects’.

The company notes that the installed capacity of new onshore wind farms, solar farms and gas generators has been optimised to minimize the total cost to electricity users and also ensure ‘baseload’ demand is met all year long with a carbon intensity no greater than 100 gCO2/kWh, in line with the EMR Draft Delivery Plan and the Fifth Carbon Budget.

The model results indicate that a new installed capacity of 5.7 GW solar farms and 10 GW wind turbines could economically supply the 3.2GW base-load in every half-hourly period of the year, with the support of 3 GW back-up gas generation. The total energy cost for the end user under this scenario would be £80/MWh. Compared to the Hinkley Point C price of £100.68/MWh in today’s money this would represent savings of £580 million per year for 35 years, or £22 per household per year for 35 years.

A key point is that the excess generation, when solar and wind combined produce more than the base-load 3.2 GW, would average 900 MW over the year (in total 8.647 TWh), which could either be exported or stored, rather than wasted, and though storing can be costly, it would have a high use-value e.g. for balancing the grid. However, even if it can’t all be used, and its value captured, Green Hedge says spilling it would not matter too much: ‘wasting’ it does not deplete the resource or create emissions. That’s true, but the energy conversion technology does cost something and it makes sense to get the most value from it as possible. That said, the main thrust of the study is clear: renewables can meet our needs at lower cost than nuclear:

It joins the large number of studies claiming that high renewable targets are viable for the UK and elsewhere. I will look at some more new ones in my next post.


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