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Wind speeds nuclear fall-out

The tables were laid, the champagne was on ice, the VIPs had their invitations. But the 28 July contract-signing ceremony and press conference to confirm the go-ahead for the UK's Hinkley Point C nuclear-power plant was cancelled at the last moment.

Nine years after the project was first announced, the British government demanded a few more months to think it over before making a final decision.

Attention first focused on China, which is stumping up £6 billion (around €7 billion) of the £18 billion required to build the 3.2GW plant. The UK’s new prime minister, Theresa May, was said to be concerned by the security implications of Chinese involvement.

But the pause to reconsider has given time for closer examination of the project’s likely costs, and to contemplate alternatives. When pro-nuclear journalists for right-wing British newspapers argue for cancelling it and investing in offshore wind instead, you know that energy thinking is changing in the UK.

The key point here is that Hinkley Point C will not be generating electricity until 2025 at the earliest. The date cannot be confirmed because no nuclear plant of this type has yet been completed. Two other reactors of the same design, also developed by EDF, are running years behind schedule, with high cost overruns.

When — if — Hinkley Point C starts production, its electricity will not be cheap. In 2013 the UK government agreed an inflation-linked strike price of £92.5/MWh (€107/MWh) for 35 years.

Cheaper offshore

Electricity generated by offshore wind in the UK is not cheap either, but it is falling rapidly as the technology improves and the developers gain experience. By 2025 it is expected to hit an average of €85/MWh (£72.6/MWh at the current sterling-euro exchange rate).

Dong Energy’s winning bid of €72.7/MWh — over only 15 years — for the Borssele 1 and 2 offshore projects in the Dutch North Sea shows this is more than achievable.

We can expect similar advances in the technology and costs of energy storage by 2025, smoothing out the peaks and troughs of renewables’ variable output. Further investment in interconnectors would also help balance supply with demand.

If Hinkley Point C was to start generating electricity next year, as originally scheduled, it might make some sense. But by 2025 — and 2030 may be a more realistic date — it won’t make any sense at all.

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