Sector trends

The future of the UK power sector

With both Hitachi and Toshiba pulling out of nuclear projects in the UK, what’s next for our power production?

Are more nuclear projects viable?

  • The UK faces an ‘energy gap’ after three planned nuclear plants were scrapped
  • While solar, offshore wind and new gas power plants can help to fill the gap, investment in storage technology is a must
  • The demand for power is expected to increase substantially with the growing trend for electrification of transport, including rail, buses and cars

This news creates a large energy gap in the government’s clean-electricity strategy. Urgent decisions are now required as to how to make good the lost generating capacity and compensate for the forthcoming retirement of coal and old nuclear plants.

It’s estimated the current ageing nuclear fleet delivers around one fifth of UK generation. As for future plans, only the French-owned EDF and China General Nuclear (CGN) projects remain. CGN has proposed to build a station at Bradwell in Essex and EDF has opened a public consultation for Sizewell C, a nuclear project in Suffolk. Whether Bradwell will materialise is in question, given the huge costs, increasing competition from renewables and security worries over Chinese involvement. Nevertheless, Sizewell C’s MD, Humphrey Cadoux-Hudson, argues it’s possible to reduce nuclear’s high costs with repetition and standardisation of design. Sizewell C is a copycat of Hinkley Point C.

Standardisation cuts costs, and repetition should yield economies of scale throughout the supply chain. An industrial approach would speed up projects, since much of the approval process on nuclear safety and other issues would have been signed off already. A public-private partnership, in which the government takes a stake in nuclear plants, could make nuclear viable and contribute to the government’s commitment to clean electricity. Ministers now face a choice between supporting nuclear power and finding a way to reduce emissions. “Extending the life of existing reactors should be considered by ministers,” suggests Alan Asbury, director of energy consultancy CLS Energy.

The non-nuclear alternative

“Certainly, a non-nuclear future is possible,” says Andrew Cox, affiliate member at Thames Global Consultants, “so long as new investment in gas power plants, wind and solar power – together with various forms of energy storage, tidal barrages and wave power – could offset the loss of the three nuclear plants and baseload power.”

According to the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit think tank, the energy gap arising from the cancellation of the Hitachi and Toshiba projects could, in theory, be filled by investing in 14GW of new offshore wind power. To put this in perspective, it’s the equivalent of more than 20 times the 659MW Walney Extension Offshore Wind Farm in the Irish Sea. This 87-turbine wind farm covers an area equal to around 20,000 football pitches and can power 600,000 homes. As Asbury says: “In such a situation, there will need to be a greater focus on energy efficiency, particularly across business; serious government address of capacity markets; and a comprehensive approach to encouragement of suitable electricity-generating renewable technologies.”

Renewable power can deliver the electricity we need. It needs a fraction of the political and financial backing that is being given to the nuclear industry

Doug Parr
Chief scientist and policy director at Greenpeace

Andrew Hughes, land manager at Intelligent Land Investments Group, notes: “We believe energy storage will have to play a large part in bridging this gap, with pumped-storage hydro being the only proven technology that can be deployed at a scale required.”

In addition, investment in utility-scale batteries is crucial to help stabilise the supply of intermittent wind and solar power. There is already around 500MW of grid-scale battery storage in operation around the UK, which could rise to 9,000MW in five years’ time, according to Solar Media’s report, UK Battery Storage: Opportunities & Market Entry Strategies for 2018 – 2022.

In practice, it’s probable that neither wind nor solar power would be sufficient to fill the gap. There would still be a need for a transitional source of power or bridging fuel, such as natural gas or imported liquefied natural gas (LNG). “It’s expected that gas will need to form part of the energy mix through to 2050, although energy storage is crucial in the energy mix to achieve the net-zero goal,” says Hughes.

In the above context, the elephant in the room is, of course, shale gas, which has transformed the US economy, and with which the UK is well endowed. Jim Ratcliffe, owner of chemical giant Ineos, warns that the government is “betting the future of our manufacturing industry on windmills and imported gas”.

One thing is clear: gas power, together with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, would make a substantial and durable contribution to the UK’s power needs. However, developing CCS technology so that it’s viable for power stations has, to date, eluded us. Despite 20 years of government support, this technology currently remains too expensive for common use and would require subsidies. George Day, head of policy and regulation at the government-funded Energy Systems Catapult, observes that gas power stations with CCS still look “pretty promising” but significant policy changes will be needed to enable firms to invest in them.

The price of power

For electricity customers, nuclear power proved a costly choice under the government’s contract with EDF. “A non-nuclear future will mean cheaper electricity for consumers than buying nuclear power,” says Cox. This opinion is echoed by CLS Energy’s Asbury, who points out: “Renewable electricity technologies will be subsidy-free from the end March 2019. Meanwhile, the wholesale prices for nuclear agreed for the first of three [Hinkley Point C] were twice current rates. Pledges to ensure the taxpayer would not pay have already been broken.

“Renewable energy is significantly cheaper than nuclear in delivering electricity. Its intermittency can be controlled through pumped, chemical, or mechanical storage.”

In addition, the cost of renewable projects continues to tumble, and fears over the intermittency of clean energy are steadily being addressed by the growth of gas-peaking plants, pumped-storage hydro, utility-scale batteries, and the emergence of smart grid technologies. As Doug Parr, chief scientist and policy director at Greenpeace, states: “Renewable power can deliver the electricity we need. It needs a fraction of the political and financial backing that is being given to the nuclear industry.”

The future of demand

Despite significant investment in energy-efficiency savings, the demand for power will increase substantially with the growing trend for electrification of transport, including rail, buses and cars. According to Hughes: “Electricity demand may be expected to increase with the shift to EVs, and this could increase a household’s energy demand by up to 50%.”

However, Cox suggests: “Future overall demand for power might not increase as much as predicted by some, since it will depend on how car-ownership levels change and the impact of increased efficiency by home and industrial users on power demand.”

It appears investment in renewable energy, grid-scale energy storage and gas plants equipped with CCS, alongside energy-efficiency measures could meet Britain’s demand for power and deliver a carbon-free economy by mid-century. The government has some urgent decisions to make.

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