Thursday, January 10, 2008

Ecowibble Meets The Real World... Sort Of

Clean energy from recycled hippies

A decision at last. After a decade of faffing around, today BERR Supremo "Who's That?" Hutton spelled out the unavoidable:

"Set against the challenges of climate change and security of supply, the evidence in support of new nuclear power stations is compelling. We should positively embrace the opportunity of delivering this important part of our energy policy."

Er... meaning what exactly?

"I invite energy companies to bring forward plans to build and operate new nuclear power stations."


Actually we all sort of assumed that. What we really wanted to know is what's it going to cost, and who's going to pay?

For those not completely up to speed with the tortuous niceties of eco-politics, the key point about today's announcement is that the government has finally been forced to admit the truth. Faced with the wildly escalating price of oil and gas, and clear and present danger on supply security, they've had to admit all that stuff about windpower and double-lagging our grannies remains just so much pie in the sky. Nuclear- with all its longer-term waste disposal problems- is still the only real game in town, just as it was in 1997.

Not that you'd glean that from the 192 page Nuclear White Paper, which makes out this is simply part of Labour's grand eco strategy. Bottler writes in his intro:

"We need to take determined long-term action to reduce carbon emissions in every aspect of the way we live, the way we use energy and the way we produce energy, including the way we generate electricity. That is why the Government has today concluded that nuclear should have a role to play in the generation of electricity, alongside other low carbon technologies."

Ah yes, those other low carbon technologies.

As you will know, the UK is now committed to the bonkers EU plan for producing 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. To put that in context, according to the official stats we currently draw well under 2% of our total energy use from renewables (2006). And in electricity generation (the only practical way of harnessing most renewables but supplying only about 20% of final energy usage), it has taken a decade just to go from 2% to 4.6%:

Why's it taking so long? Yes, that's right- too expensive. But how much?

I've tried in vain to find a useful cost comparison in the White Paper, but here's one produced by energy consultants PB Power in 2006 (it's an update of this widely disseminated 2004 study from the Royal Academy of Engineering):

You can click the chart to enlarge it, but the key point is that the only low carbon technology that comes anywhere close to the cost of electricity generation from coal and gas power is nuclear. The best of the rest is onshore wind, which costs twice as much as nukes, and has a whole load of other problems as well. Offshore windpower- with even more problems- costs around three times as much (another blog to follow).

So nuclear sounds like the right decision. The only problem is that the money involved is BIG. Finland is currently building a new nuclear power station, using established French technology, but it's way behind schedule and costs have moved well above £2bn. There's also the eventual cost of decommissioning and waste disposal. As we've seen from our old nukes, that can be extraordinarily high- £70bn plus when last sighted. A robustly enforced decommisioning fund will be a must.

So right decision, but with sums like this being chucked around, and big international companies on the other side of the table, our Simple Shopper government will need very careful watching.

And purleessse- whatever we do, let's not tax conventional power even more in order to subsidise those pricey hippy alternatives artificially into line with nukes. As the chart indicates, in terms of the real world, they are way more expensive.