For the last ten days or more the UK has been becalmed. In theory, our windmill fleet should be able to generate 20 gigawatts of power, more than 50 percent of peak demand at this time of year, but with barely a puff of wind this month, it has been generating next to nothing. If the weather forecasters are right, the lull will not end for a few more days yet. We should be thanking our lucky stars that we still have fossil fuels and nuclear to keep the lights on.
It’s hard to think of a better demonstration of the absurdity of windmills as a way of powering a modern economy. Despite this, Lord Deben, the former John Selwyn Gummer and current chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, has taken to the pages of the Guardian today to argue for more wind power, and in particular, onshore wind power.
Nevertheless, there are at least hints though that the government is finally “getting it” on the parlous state into which environmentalism has plunged the UK’s electricity grid: a planned new nuclear power station on Anglesey received a boost last week when it was announced that negotiations between the developer and the government were underway and that the state was looking to take a substantial stake in the project.
As low-carbon technologies go, nuclear of course has the great advantage of not being at the mercy of the weather, but as the debacle of Hinkley Point has shown, it is now so expensive as to make a nuclear strategy almost as mad as a renewables one.
Or is it? Another announcement last week received much less attention, but intriguingly suggests that nuclear could soon be a genuine competitor even to fossil fuels. Nuscale Energy is a US-based startup that is trying to develop small nuclear reactors that can be built in a modular fashion, allowing most of the construction to take place in a factory, before final assembly on site. The company has been riding a wave of optimism this year, after regulators gave approval to key safety elements of its design. With the major hurdle to full regulatory approval completed a few weeks later, the company now expects to be producing electricity at its first site, in Utah, by 2025.
Nuscale has previously suggested that its technology, once mature, might produce electricity at a cost of $85 per megawatt hour: cheaper than offshore wind and biomass, but more expensive than onshore wind or natural gas (although without the reliability issues of wind, which makes direct cost comparison difficult, and also without the carbon emissions of gas or biomass). However, a couple of days ago the company announced that optimisation of the design had allowed them to increase power output by 20 percent without materially affecting costs. That means that its cost per megawatt hour should fall by a similar proportion.
If Nuscale’s design changes meet with regulatory approval, and if the design performs as advertised, then the market could be upturned. Offshore wind and large-scale nuclear would probably become a thing of the past and any small price advantage of onshore wind would not compensate for its intermittency. The choice would be between cheap reliable fossil fuels and somewhat more expensive, but still reliable, modular nuclear reactors.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Even if the design proves itself in Utah, there is no guarantee that anything will change here in the UK, where the formidable obstacle of the Whitehall machine must be overcome. And with the bureaucracy dominated by card-carrying members of the green fraternity – who oppose nuclear power despite it being carbon-free – that could be a long process indeed. Let’s hope the lull in the wind comes to an end soon.
Andrew Montford is deputy director of the Global Warming Policy Forum.