Energy has been in the news even more than usual recently. With the spotlight on what the key sources will be for powering our homes and businesses in the future.
UEA professor in energy and climate change Charlie Wilson told the BBC last weekend that the need for big nuclear plants have been superseded by technology.
He argued that battery technology could be scaled up to allow renewable sources to generate power in favourable conditions and store it until it’s needed.
This would be a radical departure from the energy plan most contractors are working to. Many are working on the £20bn Hinkley Point C nuclear plant in Somerset and looking forward to EDF’s huge follow-up project at Sizewell C in Suffolk.
So, what are the challenges facing new nuclear construction in the UK? And should the supply chain be worried about the pipeline?
With the UK’s 2030 net zero commitment and the immediate drive for environmentally-friendly policies, there is pressure to introduce more renewable energy to the grid. But the recent energy crisis has shown the limitations of relying on natural sources.
With wind speeds down across the UK, the proportion of power generated by offshore wind has plummeted. While offshore wind has made great strides in recent years we can’t guarantee the conditions we need for significant reliance on renewables alone.
There are some great pilot projects. Such as the battery storage facility built in Oxford by EDF Renewables’ Pivot Power unit. Which wants to create 40 sites across the country to hold a total of 2 gigawatts of electricity. This is a fantastic step forward.
But, Renewables UK says 66,000 gigawatt hours are currently produced per year by wind farms.
If the UK was to move to only using renewable energy sources, it would have to ramp up its production of wind turbines and other schemes. And it would have to build a colossal amount of storage capacity to keep some power back for the still, cloudy days. It looks too big a leap on it’s own.
If renewables are not the full answer, could the UK fall back on coal and gas for its remaining power needs? Recent events have shown this is not always an easy answer. With a large chunk of our electricity currently coming from imported natural gas, global market conditions have impacted prices and seen some manufacturers pause production at times of extreme cost.
An application by West Cumbria Mining to build a coal mine in the North West, approved by the local planning authority, is going through a costly and bitter public inquiry. This comes after the government realised it might not show the country in its best light as it lobbied for environmental commitments ahead of COP26.
So, if we don’t want to turn back to traditional fossil fuel sources, and we can’t fast forward to having the infrastructure to rely on weather-based generation, that leaves us needing another answer. At the moment nuclear power is probably the best bet we’ve got. With a generation of facilities nearing the end of their life and decommissioning gearing up around the country, we need to find modern new plants to make nuclear power for the future.
The positive here is that communities exist around the UK with the skills and infrastructure to help the process. It is no coincidence that Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C are close to historic reactors.
The real hurdle that remains for big nuclear projects is funding. Their sheer size, complexity and regulations involved, make them very expensive investments.
The question for the UK government, is whether it would like to stump up its own money for a new nuclear plant or accept the money of another government elsewhere in the world. EDF is 85% owned by the French government. While the state-sponsored China General Nuclear Power Group also has a stake in the Hinkley and Sizewell schemes. But according to reports the UK Government plans to force the sale of China’s 20 per cent stake in Sizewell C.
One possible route for the UK to go down would be development of smaller modular reactors. Boris Johnson backed further research into this technology in his 10 Point Plan for a green industrial revolution.
The benefit of this approach is the ability to scale-up nuclear power capacity in bite-sized chunks. Potentially building several reactors on one site over time without the need for a mammoth up-front investment.
The challenge here is the time it will take to get the technology approved as safe to use. Any new development in something as potentially dangerous as nuclear reaction has a mountain of testing and paperwork to go through.
Ultimately the government will likely realise its only real choice is to take its own stake in a big one-off nuclear new build. There don’t seem to be viable and palatable alternatives.
The quicker ministers commit to making this happen, the better it will be for the industry. This would benefit the UK economy as a whole and the general population as energy customers.