Labour’s nuclear power black hole

Renewables are safe and cheap – so why is Labour set to marginalise them? asks Dave Toke

Labour’s energy spokesperson, Rebecca Long-Bailey, having previously pledged to put renewable energy on top of the energy agenda has now relegated it far below nuclear power. Her team have done this with a pledge to take partial state ownership of new nuclear power projects and of nuclear projects that have been abandoned. But, far from keeping the lights on, giving state priority to these projects will actually ruin the chances of aspiring renewable energy generators and pour countless billions down a nuclear black hole.

The figures speak for themselves. Long-Bailey pledges to reverse what she calls the Government’s “cancellations” of new nuclear projects (Moorside, Oldbury, Wylfa) (fact check: it was the developers who cancelled them despite being promised tens of billions in state aid). If these projects are brought on line (in addition to the existing Sizewell B and still-not-cancelled projects of Hinkley C and Sizewell C) then nuclear generation will climb to at least 35% of current generation – and even that does not count the Chinese-led project at Bradwell.

Meanwhile renewable energy generated 33% of UK electricity in 2018 – a figure that, with the recently announced ‘sector deal’ for offshore wind, will increase to around 65% by 2030 even without any more onshore wind and solar pv which the Labour Party claims to support. It doesn’t need a mathematical genius to work out that with 35% coming from nuclear power, there simply will not be any market space for any more renewable energy.

Yet renewable energy, as we have discussed, is cheap, becoming cheaper, and needs little or no public subsidy – a big contrast with nuclear which, despite all the promised support, high consumer subsidies, and public guarantees of loan funding (none of which is available for new renewable schemes), has failed so far to generate a single kWh. And it will not until at least 2026 even if EDF’s schedules for Hinkley C construction prove (miraculously in the light of recent nuclear construction history) to be achievable.

Of course there’s no electricity generation shortfall in the near term, and in the medium term there cannot be either, given the amount of renewable energy coming online. There’s no capacity shortage either, and there certainly won’t be in the medium term given the potential replacement of up to 30 per cent of our peak generating capacity by battery storage, or failing that, flexible gas generation. That’s going to be much cheaper than nuclear power and much more certainly brought on line when we want it compared to nuclear. Batteries will be much cheaper than nuclear and right now gas engines and open cycle plant are twenty times cheaper than nuclear power to install.

Even if only some of the new nuclear power which Labour wants to back came online, new renewable energy would still be crowded out. This is because electricity contracts given to nuclear power give them ‘dispatch priority’ over renewable energy, causing windfarms and solar farms to be turned off to give priority to nuclear power. Indeed, this is already happening with our current levels of nuclear and renewables, with (ironically) renewable energy detractors blaming the problem (and the compensation paid to the windfarms) on the windfarms themselves. So not only in the future are we going to sink into an amazing public morass of handouts to fund these nuclear power stations, but in the process, at best, we are going to be ordering the turning off of renewable energy and paying the operators compensation for this! This is crazy.

What Labour ought to be planning is to substitute renewable energy for fossil fuels used in transport and heating. Rather than throwing billions upon billions down nuclear black holes we need to give money to local authorities to build demonstration schemes for large scale heat pumps to serve new district heating systems, fund electric buses and a much quicker roll-out of fast charge points for electric vehicles, and also reorganise the regulatory system to favour demand-side response, decentralised generation and battery storage. In recent years electricity consumption has been falling, partly because of energy efficiency measures. We need to expand this strategy as well as giving more long term power purchase agreements to wind power and solar power both onshore and offshore.

There’s certainly no shortage of renewable energy options. The Scottish Government is holding a consultation about issuing new offshore wind leases, and there is a tremendous amount of onshore wind and solar pv being wasted. Then there are other renewable energy sources being developed, tidal of various sorts, and wave power. Instead of giving priority to these things Labour have come out with a daft policy that threatens to take us back to the dinosaur age by comparison.

Dave Toke

Dr David Toke is Reader in Energy Politics and Law at Aberdeen University. His latest book, Low Carbon Politics, is published by Routledge.