Friday, 4 February 2011

How renewables get squeezed with nuclear power

Using figures from the Government's own Digest of United Kingdom Energy Statistics we can see how the nuclear construction programme will squeeze the renewables programme. On the most plausible projections renewables share of UK electricity generation is likely to remain less than 20 per cent, certainly a lot less than the 30 per cent quoted as the target by the Government. In this way the demands of companies like EDF can be met for renewable development to be limited so that the commercial interests of nuclear power will be protected.

The Government plans to build 16 GW of nuclear power by 2025, according to its 'National Policy Statement'. When this amount is added to the existing commitment to build new gas combined cycle generation turbines (CCGTs), it is simple to see that there is no chance of renewables making anywhere near the 30 per cent target share of electricity (by 2020 or any other time). According to the Government’s proposals renewables will, through the proposed ‘low carbon mechanism', either be in direct or indirect  competition for resources (paid by electricity consumers through increased prices) with nuclear power. There will be no level playing field in this ‘competition’ between nuclear and renewables. No doubt nuclear will be given back-door guarantees for support which will not be available for renewable energy developers, as is always the case with nuclear power.

The figures speak for themselves on how renewables will be crowded out using average load factors (per centage time that plant generate on average in the UK compared to their maximum production). 16 GW of new nuclear power stations at an 80 per cent load factor produces 141 TWh per year. 39 GW of the existing (or planned) CCGTs at just 67 per cent load factor gives 229 TWh. UK Electricity supply for 2009 was 357 TWh, so even if this increases to 450 TWh renewables will be left with just 80 TWh, or less than 18 per cent of total electricity supply. It should be remembered that UK electricity demand/supply has been static over the last decade because of high energy prices, so supply might not even increase to 450 TWh by 2025.  It should also be remembered that this 18 percent residue will become smaller as schemes for carbon capture and storage are developed.

Note that 25GW of CCGTs is already constructed and operating! There's no doubt about that! Gas already generates around 40 per cent of UK electricity, and those gas plant are relatively recently built, so will  be around for a long time.  Note that another 14 GW of CCGTs are being planned or constructed now. 

 It is  hardly surprising therefore, that the UK Government is proposing ‘auction’ style mechanisms for awarding contracts to supply renewable energy, misleadingly called ‘feed-in tariffs’, as a backdoor method of constraining renewable growth after 2017. These auctions, tried and failed in the 1990s (and in all other cases where they have been tried around the world), are almost designed to constrain renewables while maintaining a fiction of relatively ambitious targets. They will severely limit renewable and especially wind power development after the Renewables Obligation is phased out in 2017. Under 'auction' systems prospective developers tend to make unrealistically low bids for contracts to supply renewable energy in order win in the auctions, and then half of the projects are not implemented because of poor likely economic returns. In the case of onshore wind the problem is even worse since half of the remaining projects fail to achieve planning consent in the UK.  

Of course the auction system presents the Government with an alibi for lack of delivery of renewable energy. It simply blames the developers. We need a transparent, open ended system of feed-in tariffs for renewable energy with good rates set for each technology as exists in Germany with no constraints on who can get contracts provided they are supplying renewable energy such as wind, solar, small hydro, biogas, wave, tidal stream etc. Of course the Renewables Obligation at the moment would be much preferable compared to what the Government are proposing. It is an expensive system, but we need reforms to the system that continues to encourage capacity build up,not a system that constrains renewables for the benefit of nuclear power development. 

The bulk of the Round 3 proposals for offshore windfarms will never be implemented under the Government proposals. Really, the UK should be generating 50 per cent of electricity from renewables by 2025, but instead we will be sailing off into what the Government apparently sees as a nuclear powered future. Those of us who believe that a renewable future is far preferable to a global nightmare of uranium depletion followed by fast breeder reactors seem, at the moment, to be failing to get our message across. Do we need to wait five years before we realise that this Government's priority is nuclear power rather than renewable energy?

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