George Osborne tells us today that we need to solve climate change on the cheap. By on the cheap he means keeping nuclear energy and fracking as options. Fracking, I guess will displace the electricity generated by all of the UK’s coal plants. Yes, almost all of these coal power plants will be retired by the time fracking gets going in Britain, but never mind.
Naturally a lot of environmentalists have taken to Twitter to mock the idea that nuclear energy is cheap. Instead they inform us that it is ultra expensive. If you actually care about climate change calling nuclear energy ultra expensive seems to be a rather stupid strategy. It forces you to call everything else ultra expensive. Anyone who spends enough time listening to the average environmentalist discussing energy will realise these self serving arguments have gone from being half to fully believed. Use a talking point enough times then you’ll end deciding that it must be true.
The official line is this: nuclear energy is expensive, gas is expensive, and the way to keep bills down is to invest in renewables. What piffle. Electricity from gas remains cheaper than any low carbon option, and anyone betting that this will change tomorrow is fooling themselves. The fixed prices the UK government is offering up to nuclear, wind and solar are remarkably similar. Factor in intermittency and it is suddenly very difficult to argue nuclear is expensive in comparison with the renewable alternatives.
More importantly, solar is a fundamentally limited option for the UK. Consider this. Hinkley C, a stupidly expensive and it appears badly designed nuclear power plant, will provide 7% of UK electricity demand. The National Grid thinks that getting more than 6% of our electricity from solar will be incredibly difficult due to grid integration problems. See a problem here? Solar is never going to be anything more than a marginal energy source in Britain, yet greens continue to fool themselves into thinking it is an alternative to something as scalable as nuclear. I once read a PR flack from the solar industry refer to Britain’s solar resource was “phenomenal,” an abuse of language even a professional PR person should be embarrassed by.
And we have a similar problem with onshore wind. It appears to be totally dead. The timing of this was always uncertain, but that it would happen was inevitable. Low power density of wind farms means that they have to take up a huge area. Supplying 100% of UK electricity from onshore wind would require an area the size of Wales to be covered in wind farms. A totally unthinkable proposition in NIMBY heavy Britain. So we have to build the things in the sea. Even here there are no shortage of problems, from Donald Trump to migrating birds. And who would want to bet the long term energy supply on an energy source as untried as offshore wind. Environmentalists claim the precautionary principle should guide use. Try applying it to the expansion of offshore wind.
But like it or not, offshore wind is now the only scalable form of renewable energy in Britain. Solar and onshore wind are not. This leaves us with three choices as far as low carbon electricity is concerned: nuclear, offshore wind and CCS. Nuclear is currently much cheaper than offshore wind, and this is not likely to change tomorrow. So, forget about calling nuclear expensive, and be more honest and say that de-carbonisation is expensive. If nuclear energy is expensive then it is time we lowered our expectations when it comes to climate change, because cheaper options are not staring us in the face.