Britain's nuclear industry is now attacking renewable energy in the fight for ground in the future electricity market, the framework for which is being laid by government in its new energy policy. Nuclear organisations, trade associations, nuclear interest groups and individuals are presenting a united front in submissions to the government's review of how to plug the gap in future energy supply following the phased closure of the existing generation of nuclear power stations. The government is concerned about keeping to its downward trend in carbon emissions while maintaining security of supply against the background of projected reliance on imports of natural gas.
In submissions to the review, the nuclear lobby dismisses the contribution from renewables. It claims that nuclear is the only viable option to generate sufficient output while keeping down carbon emissions. Typically, nuclear proponents bash renewable energy on the basis of its perceived unreliability and high cost. British Energy says that renewables cannot be relied upon due to their intermittent availability and limited scale. "Most rely on economic support and give rise to extensive land use or planning resistance," its submission says.
The review was initiated by Prime Minister Tony Blair to develop an energy strategy consistent with the country's long term environmental goals. It is being undertaken by the Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) which reports direct to Blair, and is headed by energy minister Brian Wilson.
Nuclear versus renewables
British Energy then goes on to call for a long term mechanism to support nuclear, recognising its "environmental and other benefits." This, it suggests, could be along the lines of the Renewables Obligation on suppliers which from January 2002 will provide a guaranteed market for renewable energy. The company claims that nuclear is economic if paid a premium of £10/MWh over market prices and compares this with the £30/MWh premium that renewables expect to command under the renewables obligation. "Delivering nuclear via this scheme would cost significantly less than the equivalent quantity of renewables," it states.
The Electricity Association which tends to champion large scale, conventional production of electricity also joins the attack. "While renewables do deliver significant environmental benefits, the intermittent nature of certain technologies means that they do not necessarily meet security of supply criteria and, in lieu of other solutions such as energy storage, stand-by capacity must be provided to guarantee that demand can be met," its states.
The newly-established Renewable Power Association (RPA) counters in its submission that many renewables are cheaper, safer and more technically proven than nuclear. It goes on to argue that intermittency should not be confused with unreliability. Renewable plants usually achieve higher availability than conventional technologies, while wind plant have typically 98% availability, it says. "Just because wind, for example, is intermittent, this does not mean that it is not firm -- it does have a capacity credit."
It points out that the existing electricity distribution system can accommodate up to 20% of energy supplies without operational changes. More still can be accommodated "at a small incremental cost," claims the RPA. In the longer term, larger volumes of renewable electricity entering the system may require adaptation to the planning of the network, it says.
Converts to nuclear
Worryingly, the nuclear industry's arguments are increasingly gaining common currency. The Major Energy Users Council -- whose overriding interest is in cheap volumes of electricity -- is a convert to the nuclear cause. Its submission to the review states: "Nuclear energy offers the only realistic prospect for significant quantities of emission free power generation for the long term and its safe development must be openly encouraged by government."
The British media, too, are widely predicting a nuclear renaissance. After a balanced debate on the BBC's influential Radio 4 program, Costing the Earth, presenter Alex Kirby concludes: "I bet the environmental lobby's dream of a clean, green renewable future may have to wait a little longer."
The case for nuclear could find fertile ground in the government, which has recently begun making increasingly favourable noises towards nuclear. And energy minister Brian Wilson, who heads the PIU review, is known for his pro-nuclear sympathies. What is more debatable is where this leaves renewables -- particularly wind, the cleanest technology able to compete with nuclear on price.
The government is being urged on more than one front that the renewable energy technologies are too expensive and cannot hope to plug the gap. While the nuclear lobby's arguments against wind are well-rehearsed, Callum McCarthy, the energy regulator, has recently entered the fray advising government to encourage more "reliable" forms of renewable generation than wind (previous story). The regulator sees his key remit as driving down costs and encouraging competition.
But some high profile industry players question the direction that energy policy in the UK is taking. Brian Count, head of the country's second largest energy supplier, Innogy, accuses the government and the energy regulator of failing to "join up" their policies.
No industry input
The regulator's concern with competition in supply and generation and ever lower electricity prices is pulling the energy industry in the opposition direction to the government, he says. "You can't have the government setting policy and then the regulator driving the industry into another position. In the past decade, regulators' decisions have been short term and have not placed the industry in the best place to meet the big picture agenda, such as carbon emissions."
Count also criticises the government for not including more electricity industry representatives in the review. "There are lots of civil servants and government scientists and members of environmental and consumer groups, and we have no problem with that," he says. "But there's nobody from the industry which will have to make this work."