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Debates in the UK over the future of electricity often seem to presented as a choice between renewables and nuclear power. In my opinion the all renewables or all nuclear visions should be firmly placed among the faith based.

First, renewables. If you propose doing without nuclear then you must first come up with a well thought out way of doing it. So, can you decarbonise entirely with renewables? The answer appears to be no. The reasons for this have been clearly laid out by David MacKay in his excellent book “Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air.” Some attempts have been made to show how this could be done, (for an example see this WWF report) however the assumptions behind these efforts rarely stand up. A simple example is that WWF claimed you could get greater than 90% renewables by 2030, but this assumed about 30 GW of interconnector capacity. A figure which can comfortably be placed in the world of fantasy.

If you don’t go with nuclear, then you will need a large amount of carbon capture and storage. The current position on carbon capture and storage in the EU would accurately be called a farce. Plenty of money sitting around for trialling the technology, and no one really bothering doing anything about it.

So, overall it looks as if you either include nuclear in the mix or you accept UK electricity cannot be decarbonised by 2030.

Should we perhaps skip renewables entirely and lay it all on nuclear? France shows that this can be done, and certainly the technical problems are fewer than going with high levels of renewable power. The problem however is economic and financial.

Right now the two cheapest forms of low carbon energy are nuclear and onshore wind. Many anti-nuclear environmentalists call nuclear power “expensive.” However, the label is curiously never applied to offshore wind or solar power, which the basic facts indicate are more expensive. A good case, however can be made that offshore wind is likely to be cheaper than the first couple of nuclear reactors the UK builds. Certainly the cost over runs in EDF’s nuclear reactors in France and Finland would make one believe this.

Fundamentally, if you were in the business of picking “winners” you would choose onshore wind and nuclear power over everything else. A problem, however is that neither of these options are politically correct. Solar, offshore wind, marine renewables are all more expensive, but much more popular with the public.

Ideally, we wouldn’t be in the business of picking “winners,” and instead would put a proper price on carbon and let low carbon power compete. This, however, does not appear likely to happen. No one knows what the cost of different forms of low carbon power will be next decade, yet most people seem to advocate policies that only work if we do.



11 thoughts on “Either/Or

    Chris Vernon said:
    December 10, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    Renewables or nuclear? It’s a false argument and I have little time for anyone taking absolutlist positions on either. There I expect we agree with one another.

    However, the supply-side debate is tired and not very useful compared to the work needing to be done on the demand side. Remember we don’t demand energy, we demand energy services. Far better to work on delivering energy services against a far lower magnitude and more variable supply, than to work on every increasing quantities of five-nines supply.


      Robert Wilson said:
      December 10, 2012 at 4:46 pm

      I disagree that the demand side is more important. By itself supply side measures can decarbonise the electricity grid. The same is not true of demand.

      The other big problem is that it is not clear how much demand can e reduced, if at all. First, population is likely to rise by 2030. Second, we need to electrify transportation and heating etc. Doing this without increases in demand seems pretty difficult.

      We also do not know if things such as smart grids will even work, or to what extent. In advance you will have a reasonable idea what a nuclear reactor will do to emissions. It’s not clear if this is true for the likes of energy efficiency, where reduced energy use in houses for example may simply result in increased energy use elsewhere. Overall, I agree with what George Monbiot wrote in Heat. We need to have a supply side electricity mix that will work irrespective of the demand side.


    Jonathan Jones said:
    December 10, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    But nuclear power and wind power are not interchangeable, unless you have decent storage. Nuclear power is controllable; with wind you just get what you are given (or are not given), Comparing them is comparing apples with oranges.

    It may well be that uncontrolled onshore wind is cheaper than nuclear. But controllable onshore wind is not even available (and so can’t possibly be cheaper) without building massive expensive pumped storage hydro or some equivalent breakthrough in energy storage, Once you have nuclear there is no reason to install more than tiny amounts of wind.

    Unless you’re doing something intrinsically intermittent like pumping water out of polders, in essence wind is a solution looking desperately for a problem,


      Robert Wilson said:
      December 10, 2012 at 4:57 pm


      It was a quick post. So no time to go into the full details of each tech.

      Overall, it is true that there are more ‘external’ costs to wind than nuclear. Of course most Greens would say the opposite. The costs of back up is much higher for wind than nuclear. Likewise grid integration at higher penetration levels is an issue for wind. If nuclear was the same face value price then adding the externalities on would make it cheaper. However it’s not clear if nuclear is the same price. It probably will be once the UK figures out how to build reactors again, but it’ll probably take a couple to get things moving

      Though certainly it seems clear that nuclear is cheaper than offshore wind, even at some of the higher rumoured strike prices many greens were calling ‘expensive.’


        Jonathan Jones said:
        December 10, 2012 at 5:21 pm

        If you want to completely “decarbonise” you can’t use fossil fuel backup for your wind (we have already agreed that CCS doesn’t currently exist). Of course gas backed wind will be lower carbon than coal, but you could do very nearly as well at far lower prices by just using the gas on its own.

        Without storage the case for wind remains weak to non-existent. If you want renewables you should sink all your cash into research on storage (including demand management which may actually be the best storage option at present, though politically a tough sell). If you just want low carbon electricity then you divide your cash between building current nuclear designs and researching better designs.


    Steve said:
    December 10, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    I don’t really follow what would be the problem with an all nuclear grid.

    It seems quite likely that once the first few are built it would be the cheapest way to generate low carbon electricity. It would have none of the problems of variability or storage.

    And if heating and transportation did become electrified then it might be possible to develop a reasonably level demand over 24 hours a day, which would suit nuclear power. (I have electric storage heating in my building and use as much electricity at night as I do during the day)

    It won’t happen of course, but I only see public opinion and political will preventing it.


      Robert Wilson said:
      December 10, 2012 at 6:20 pm


      You seem to be responding to a post I did not write. As I said in the post France shows that you can decarbonise more or less entirely with nuclear power. The real issues are economic and financial. If someone would could provide strong evidence that all nuclear was cheaper than a mixture then good. Also I said I support putting a proper price on carbon and letting low carbon power compete. If nuclear is cheapest then we can go all nuclear.


    Proteos said:
    December 10, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    France also has a hydroelectric park which produces ~10% of its electricity. It is very useful as it covers a good chunk of the intraday swings in demand. France also has the advantage of having willing buyers for its excess baseload electricity (the Swiss & the Italians). One should not paint too rosy a picture of the french success, there are special circumstances at play which do not apply to the UK.

    I globally concur with what you say: it would be dumb to ditch any energy source. They should be built according to their merits, their costs and with consideration to the starting point. It’s no use to build lots of windmills if you are already low carbon. It makes sense to build them if you are high on fossil fuels.

    I also find that renewables are too often equated with wind and solar. Of course that’s where most of the potential is regarding electricity production. But things like heat pumps are also (part) renewables and should play a role in decarbonisation.


      Rouget said:
      December 11, 2012 at 11:27 pm

      To complete your post: the installed nuclear capacity was not designed to export so much electricity. Engineers in the 70s, just out of the French Gilded Age, had envisioned a future where France would consume 1000 TWh in 2000. We are at 560+ TWh and exporting around 56 TWh (10%!), worldwide record.

      France has good connections with other countries, some are very demanding (Switzerland, 8 million people, importing 26 TWh! A lot is going to pump water at a cheap price and sell it to other demanding countries, Italy firstly) and interconnections will grow, even if slowly and painfully.

      As you mention in your last paragraph, and to expand it, we are in route to electrify en masse all sector consuming energy. Electrification is everywhere, heat pump for warm water and heating in general, hybrid cars and buses even slightly, trams and trains with batteries to recover energy and pump it at bay, more electricity too to control automatically building heating and cooling management, etc.

      Electricity contains less entropy and can be used more efficiently coming from centralized power plants enabling large-scale energy reductions.


    Ruth Dixon (@ruth_dixon) said:
    December 11, 2012 at 8:12 am

    I have a blog post analysing 40+ replies from Members of Parliament to their constituents’ questions as to how they think the UK Climate Change Act targets will be met. All of the MPs who offered an opinion mentioned technological solutions: e.g, wind, nuclear and ‘clean coal and gas’ (I don’t know if they understood what is meant by that phrase – they did not expand on it). There was far less (if any) emphasis on demand reduction.

    Only two MPs mentioned that their constituents’ behaviour might have to change (‘This wasteful behaviour needs to change’ (leaving appliances on standby), and more generally ‘we are all consumers and we all have a part to play in reducing our emissions’).

    Some mentioned the Green Deal ‘which will dramatically increase the energy efficiency of British homes’, but their letters did not suggest that this would require action on the part of their constituents. Some MPs used a phrase from the Carbon Plan 2011 ‘the electricity grid will be larger and smarter at balancing demand and supply’ though none suggested that this might involve reducing demand.

    Overall MPs seemed optimistic that technology would supply all the solutions needed to achieve a low-carbon energy supply, and they down-played any suggestions of demand reduction or behaviour change.



    Chris Vernon said:
    December 11, 2012 at 9:39 am

    Yeah, this is the problem Ruth. The emphasis is mostly on the supply side. Until we get serious about the demand side I see little hope.


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