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The recent withdrawal of investors from the Wylfa, Oldbury and Moorside nuclear power stations, along with tumbling costs of renewables, raises significant questions for the future of the UK’s energy policy.
ICE’s National Needs Assessment (NNA) in 2016 found that the UK’s peak energy capacity would need to increase by 33% on current levels by 2050.
However, the NNA also identified that the key challenge with nuclear is uncertainty – large projects are complex to finance and have long lead-in times. This concern has proved prescient, though it's very unlikely that this is the end for the sector.
The Nuclear Sector Deal, launched in June 2018 as part of the Industrial Strategy, committed to fund and develop a number of new initiatives, including small modular reactors and nuclear fusion.
The sector deal also called for the use of the regulatory asset base model for financing future nuclear projects, on a similar model to the Thames Tideway project which has met with some success. Such a model could see works restart at sites like Wylfa in the future, particularly where substantial preparatory work has already taken place.
At a fundamental level, nuclear provides reliable and long-term baseload power.
Over the past year, UK nuclear plants generated 19% of total UK power. This makes it the single-largest source of low-carbon electricity in the UK, but it's in decline as ageing reactors are shut down and decommissioned.
Of the projects in the pipeline to have recently been suspended, Wylfa and Oldbury represented 2.9GW of generation each, while Moorside would have provided 3.3GW. This leaves a 9.1GW deficit in the government’s plans that must be filled if energy bills are to be affordable, carbon emissions are to be reduced and security of supply continued.
Of course, supply is not everything. UK electricity generation in 2018 was 16% lower than in 2005 (and imports remained broadly the same over that period), even though the population increased by 10% in that time. Demand-side measures and more efficient technology, driven by climate change policies, have largely contributed to this.
The Committee on Climate Change also believes that there's significant untapped potential in improving energy efficiency further, particularly as LED technology matures and continues to fall in price. The advent of electric vehicles, however, is likely to see generation need increase in the future.
The National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) National Infrastructure Assessment predicts that an energy system heavily reliant on renewables will be marginally less expensive than one heavily reliant on nuclear by 2050.
The trend in strike prices between renewables and nuclear is telling; renewables have fallen from a price of £114 per MWh to £57.50 MWh within two years, while the strike price for Hinkley C is £92.50 per MWh.
The NIC also expects further maturity in the technologies needed to balance the inevitable intermittency of renewable power generation, for example battery storage, smart grids and interconnectors.
Nuclear is still required as part of a diverse energy mix to provide a degree of baseload power, but the role of renewables in an increasingly uncertain landscape – both in terms of meeting generation needs and carbon reduction targets - is becoming ever more prominent.
Ultimately it's the balance of the UK’s energy mix that is shifting, and there's onus on the government’s forthcoming White Paper, due later this year, to recognise this.