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A foolhardy agenda

Mixing wind and nuclear to achieve the ultimate clean energy power system sounds like a great idea in theory. In practice, it is unworkable. That fact seems to have escaped a larger number of decision makers the world over, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Last month he pre-empted the result of his own energy review by announcing that nuclear is "back on the agenda with a vengeance." In the same sentence he also said exactly the same about renewable energy (page 30). Somebody needs to tell the prime minister -- and others with the same bright idea -- some basic technical and economic truths about power system operation. He can have a good proportion of nuclear on his power system, or he can have a good proportion of renewables. What he cannot have is both, except at enormous cost.

In his expansive statement, Tony Blair chose to ignore the unsolved issues of nuclear waste. For the purpose of this leader article, we will do the same, though this magazine maintains its view that without a final solution to the waste problem, nuclear should not even be an option for the agenda, let alone be back on it. A swelling body of opinion, however, is being persuaded by the nuclear industry that there is no other option; that only it "offers clean, environmentally friendly energy on a massive scale" and for that reason the dangers of nuclear waste are outweighed by the dangers of global warming.

A year ago this column argued against the fallacy of believing that only nuclear could save us all. Renewable energy, particularly wind energy, has demonstrably proved that it can do the job just as well as nuclear and for a lot less money (Windpower Monthly, June 2005). That fact is so patently obvious to anybody who has studied the available evidence -- and further studies in the past year have come to the same conclusion -- that the decline of nuclear should be speeding up. Instead, governments are looking at ways to slow it down. Like Britain, Sweden is having doubts about phasing out nuclear. It, too, is talking of a wind and nuclear mix (pages 60-64).

What is escaping the notice of the global energy debate is that nuclear and wind are a very bad technical and economic match. Demand for electricity varies enormously over a 24 hour period. The generation mix has to be structured so it can follow the ups and downs of the load curve. There must be enough capacity to meet peak output, but that can be twice the average consumption and three times more than minimum demand. Power production is required to rise and fall within those extremes. As demonstrated in western Denmark, where wind supplies 23% of electricity over a year, wind on occasion meets all the demand. With an electricity network supplied by renewables plus coal or gas, the output from thermal power stations can be reduced, less fuel is burned and money is saved. That is not the case when there are significant amounts of nuclear on a system. Not much is saved when a nuclear power station is switched off, probably less than $10/MWh. Fuel savings from switching out a coal or gas-fired power station can be three to six times that figure.

The economic barrier has another element too. Nuclear and wind share in common an advantage over fossil fuel: the cost of electricity from both lies almost entirely in the capital outlay rather than in uncertain (and generally rising) fuel costs. That means that once built, both technologies need to generate power whenever they can for the economics to make sense. If not, either the price of a kilowatt hour has to rise, or a trip down bankruptcy lane becomes unavoidable. A system with wind and nuclear on it will see the two technologies jostling to remain connected at all times. On each occasion when generation exceeds demand, one or other has to be the loser -- and will fall behind with debt repayments. Investing in either (or in solar, tidal stream tidal barrage and wave energy) under such circumstances is a mug's game.

Leading to farce

The nuclear-wind conflict is lurking behind the scenes in any country with serious intentions of building out both technologies. Sweden, with about 45% nuclear, could become the first to run up against the barrier if the government decides not to proceed with a nuclear phase-out. Utility Vattenfall, however, is busy getting one step ahead. It has grandly announced a major investment in building 3000 MW of wind power (page 29). If the government is lulled into believing that full exploitation of Sweden's wind resource is now taken care of, Vattenfall will have succeeded in capping wind at a low level that will not interfere with its major interest -- nuclear power.

For Britain or any other country busy building wind power, embarking on a program of nuclear expansion at the same time is foolhardy. There does not have to be much wind or nuclear at all before the two come into serious conflict (page 64). In the ten to 15 years it will take to get nuclear power stations built, wind and other renewables will be meeting significant proportions of demand, perhaps up to 20% or more. As nuclear power comes online, one or other will have to give. To prevent widespread bankruptcies, governments will have to step in and pay wind or nuclear, or both, for not producing power. The farce would make Europe's long blighted Common Agricultural Policy look like a model of good economic sense.

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