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.