Can renewable energy sources really close the energy gap?
Whether Britain builds a new generation of nuclear power stations as part of our long-term future energy mix will largely be a matter of choice, and not of necessity. What is more, the choice, if it is made, may well 'crowd out' alternatives because of the heavy cost of forward capital finance and the extent to which guarantees about future price of energy need to be given to establish the investment ion the first place.
Perceptions that we may need new nuclear arise from the fact that, over the next fifteen years most of the twelve existing nuclear power stations are due to be decommissioned, along with some coal fired plants, leaving an energy 'gap' which needs to be filled. If we invest in new gas plants, we will put all our energy eggs in one basket, and we will move away, rather than towards our goals for radically reducing CO 2 emissions from power generation. 'Renewables' will not be able to do this, it is argued, and we should therefore invest in new nuclear.
There are three problems with this view. Firstly, even if we pressed the button on new nuclear within a couple of years, the long planning, commissioning and build period involved would mean that very little would be built before 2020. Nuclear is not a 'quick fix' for an energy gap.
Secondly, it is by no means clear that overall, there will be the gap that is supposed. Already one nuclear power station has extended it s life, and others may well follow. Conversion of coal fired power stations to meet EU regulations is proceeding better than expected, and in the Waste review, running parallel to the energy review, projections about the level of power that could be generated from 'energy from residual waste' plants appear significant. New power generation from large scale renewables such as offshore wind is likely, by 2020 to produce almost all the power lost by closing nuclear power stations even if their lives are not extended..
Thirdly, there are many different kinds of renewable and near-renewable technologies that produce power now or will in the future. Unlike gas or oil, there is not one 'renewable'. They range from efficient near-renewable plants such as combined heat and power, to offshore and onshore wind, to solar or ground source heating through to tidal and wave power technologies. On top of that, there are a variety of domestic forms of 'microgeneration' such as efficient, electricity-producing boilers and small wind turbines. Taken together, they can tap into the UKs store of renewable sources - acknowledged to be by far the largest in Europe. Some, like wind (both onshore and offshore) are commercial or near-commercial now, and will over the next few years produce substantial amounts of electricity. Plans for more than two nuclear power stations-worth of offshore wind are underway in the Thames estuary alone, for example.
Other forms will come to the market at a later date, and may be taken up gradually. It is estimated, for example, that microgeneration could be supplying up to forty per cent of electricity within forty years. The decentralised forms of power that renewables will represent will, furthermore, save a considerable proportion of the power that is simply lost in transmission as it travels along the long grid lines from big centralised power plants such as nuclear power stations.
These different forms of renewable power, themselves a diverse, indigenous and reliable power source, will come to dominate our power in the decades after the next one. If we take a decision to pledge our future to nuclear power because we fear a 'gap' now, we may well find ourselves stuck with rigid, potentially insecure 'big power' just at the moment when the advantages of renewable and decentralised power systems have become overwhelming.