Keeping the Lights On – Are there lessons to be learnt from Germany?

Neil O’Sullivan

Friday 12th July 2013: Following news from Germany that its system of subsidies for renewable energy may hamper progress towards effective electricity storage, the question for the UK is: Should this country step up its nuclear energy programme? A group of energy specialists agreed at a recent Politeia discussion that nuclear power will play a vital role in the UK energy mix, but if this is to happen far more needs to be decided by policy makers, writes Neil O’Sullivan, Politeia’s Assistant Director.

Researchers in Germany are arguing that innovative technologies used to store electricity could be hampered by the country’s system of feed-in tariffs for renewable energy. Finding a way to store intermittent renewable energy is vital if Germany is to replace its nuclear generational capacity now being phased out following Fukushima, with renewable alternatives proposed. But German scientists argue that the subsidy makes the electricity produced too expensive and therefore uneconomical for storage using new technologies such as ‘Power to Gas’. Finding ways to store renewable electricity is important if a consistent supply is to be maintained during periods when less energy is being generated.

Britain should watch developments in Germany with interest. If the subsidies that are presently required to make renewable energy viable make it less possible for the electricity to be stored, it will be even more important to press forward with the renewal of Britain’s fleet of nuclear reactors.

Nuclear energy, as the specialists at Politeia’s meeting explained, will matter both for the security of supply and for the policy of decarbonisation. It is one of the only carbon-free energy sources that can provide large enough quantities of stable baseload power to replace lost coal-fired generating capacity and support the more intermittent generation from renewables. It will play a vital role in maintaining a stable supply if the high price of renewables means the electricity they produce is not easily able to be stored.

The specialists, however, warned that time is running out. While the public increasingly accept that nuclear energy will continue to play a part in UK electricity generation, nine out of the ten currently operating nuclear power stations are due to shut down within the next decade. This means unless new capacity replaces that being lost, the UK’s nuclear generational capacity will dramatically decline along with the British nuclear supply chain, and the knowledge and skills base that goes with it.

Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, says he is committed to producing nuclear energy at an affordable price and without direct subsidy by the tax payer. The government’s £10bn announcement in financial guarantees will pave the way for the first new reactor in the country since 1995 to be built by the French supplier EDF Energy at a site already prepared at Hinkley Point (by two existing stations). They are currently negotiating with the government over a minimum price guaranteed for the electricity from the new reactor, so that new construction can begin. It now seems that the station will be built, but it will not begin to generate electricity for an estimated 10 years. Meanwhile the capacity lost through plant closures will not be replaced in time and the consequences for the long term future for UK nuclear are worrying.

Britain’s scientists, some of whom gathered at Politeia to discuss the details, are second to none; and the country’s research has helped to lead the world. But if the lights are to stay on, more will be needed beyond a £10bn guarantee.

The debate needs to move faster, to the number and size of reactors needed, so a start can be made to phase in new capacity as current plants become obsolete. While there is still much to debate, and the politics and costs remain complex, no longer is there any doubt about the need and how nuclear will help to meet it.

*Neil O’Sullivan is Politeia’s Assistant Director. Here he is reflecting on Politeia’s recent energy meeting The UK and Nuclear Energy: What future? in the light of the latest news from Germany.