Britain risks “prolonging its dependency” on fossil fuel power stations if it fails to invest further in new nuclear reactors to counter the variability of renewables, according to an analysis that found wind and solar met less than a fifth of Britain’s daily electricity demand on 82 occasions last year.
The report by the Centre for Policy Studies, the centre-right think-tank, highlighted the intermittency of renewable generation last year, despite a record for solar and wind generation in 2020.
The study, funded by France’s EDF Energy, the operator of all the UK’s nuclear power stations and the developer of the only new plant, found a big swing in the contribution from wind and solar. There were days when the two technologies fulfilled as little as 5 per cent of daily electricity demand but others when they met nearly two-thirds.
Overall, gas remained the single biggest source of generation, at 34.5 per cent, with wind second at nearly a quarter. Nuclear was the third largest at 17.2 per cent.
UK government policy is to “overwhelmingly” decarbonise the power system by the 2030s as part of the legally-binding goal to cut emissions to net zero by 2050. This coincides with forecasts that electricity demand is expected to double over the next 30 years driven in large part by the switch to electric vehicles.
The decarbonisation plans coincides with the retirement by 2030 of all but one of the existing fleet of nuclear reactors. Only one new plant, the 3.2 gigawatt Hinkley Point C in Somerset, is under construction, which would replace just under 40 per cent of nuclear capacity by the end of the decade.
The report said unless more nuclear power generating capacity was built, it was unlikely that the UK could wean itself off its reliance on gas-fired stations in that timeframe. The technology to convert those plants to a clean gas, such as hydrogen, is still in its infancy.
Eamonn Ives, the report’s author, acknowledged renewables would meet an ever larger part of energy demand but added that “providing an increasing share does not equate to meeting all of the Britain’s electricity needs”.
Environmental groups argue the government must focus on technologies such as offshore wind along with battery storage to ensure a reliable energy supply from technologies affected by weather. But the nuclear lobby insists the government must back new plants to replace Britain’s ageing reactors.
Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace UK, dismissed more large nuclear stations as “colossally expensive white elephants” where costs were always spiralling out of control. In contrast, he said, the cost of battery and hydrogen technology was coming down.
Ministers said in December that they would hold talks with EDF on how to fund another plant, the £20bn Sizewell C project proposed for England’s east coast.
A decade of indecision on how to finance a new generation of nuclear power stations has led to a number of developers abandoning proposed projects.
The government is examining potentially taking stakes in any new reactors, as well considering a “regulated asset base” funding model, which would see consumers pay upfront through their energy bills for the construction of the plant.
Kwasi Kwarteng, the new business secretary, raised the hopes of the nuclear lobby this week when he told a parliamentary committee that it would be “far more expensive” to have an electricity system that was fully dependent on renewables.