Gas-fired power stations and the miraculous emergence of new nuclear

In my last post I mentioned that there were likely to be some serious difficulties with the 2018 date for the emergence of the first new nuclear power stations. Last week the issue cropped up again in an unexpected place: in a very surprising answer I received to a line of questioning to the Energy Minister, Charles Hendry at the Energy and Climate Change Select committee. Last week the Committee was considering the National Policy Statements on Energy. These are a thick pile of documents that between them set out the strategic guidance for, among other things, planning decisions on future power stations, renewables, the grid and so on.  In short, they encapsulate the framework within which our future energy development will be set. They will certainly be looked at very carefully by investors in the next generation of power plants, for example. So it is probably of paramount importance that they cast the framework carefully and correctly.

The key to all the documents is the overarching energy guidance document, imaginatively entitled ‘EN-1’ (here) If you turn to page 22 of this document, it sets out the official estimates for how much electricity generating capacity we will need over the next fifteen years if we are to keep the lights on, and bearing in mind that we will by then have a substantial penetration into the network of wind. The document estimates that by 2025, we will have some 33 gigawatts of wind installed, and this will need additional back up capacity because of its variability.

So, if we add this new requirement together with the replacement for the capacity of plants going off line (old nuclear and retiring coal and gas plant phasing out under EU emissions directives coming to about 22gw) it is estimated that we will need to install something like 59GW of new capacity by 2025. 33gw of that is, as I have set out, wind, but where’s the rest coming from?

We know where about 8gw will come from. That’s from plants already in the process of being built – almost wholly gas-fired. We know that more, mostly gas, has received planning permission but has not yet been built. So what about the ‘gap’ of 18gw, then? Will it be filled by this plant that has got planning permission and looks suspiciously like yet more gas, or will it be something else?  It is an important point because, if Carbon Capture and Storage concentrates on coal, or  emission performance standards come in at, say, 500g/kwh, then gas can come on to the network unabated more or less forever.

Although less carbon emission-intense than coal, gas it is far too profligate to get anywhere near the ambitions of the UK’s carbon budgets. Nor will it fulfil the plan, publicly endorsed by the Government and stated baldly by the Committee on Climate Change last year, that UK power needs to be almost completely decarbonised by 2030. That means something like average emissions of 70 or so grams per kilowatt hour. Gas comes in at about 400 -450.

That’s what I asked the minister. He was startlingly forthright. He said that some 16gw of the difference could well be from nuclear power. I must say, I was rather taken aback, since that would mean (coming back to the famous date of 2018) that not only would the first nuclear power station have to arrive on time, but no less than nine more would have to pop up within the next seven years!  Seeing as how the Committee on Climate Change in its 2009 document on new nuclear timelines (find it here) estimated that, even assuming everything went well for 2018, there would be no more than three in place by the early 2020s that’s some going.  And we all know, I imagine, that it won’t happen in reality.

But…this now seems to be the very thin thread that holds the line between a planning document that appears to sanction rapid development of gas-fuelled electricity to plug the ‘energy gap’ at the cost of any hope of meeting our carbon budgets for the next fifteen years, and the imperative that we decarbonise, permanently, our energy supplies to meet the requirements of a future low carbon economy.  I think most people knew that new nuclear never was going to and will not now, ride to the rescue of the ‘energy gap’. But apparently, according to the Government, it will now, starting precisely at the beginning of 2018. Magic.



One thought on “Gas-fired power stations and the miraculous emergence of new nuclear

  1. Pingback: The books: balancing or cooking? | alan's energy blog

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