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Where are our priorities – nuclear or energy efficiency?

ImageUntil the Government answers this questions that goes back to the early 1980s will we have any idea of the best option for achieving future carbon savings

It remains quite extraordinary that the Government “still has no idea whether investing £1,300 million in a single nuclear plant is as cost-effective as spending a similar sum to promote energy conservation.”

So wrote the House of Commons Select Committee on Energy. Not last week, but 24 years ago. And officially, that question still hangs in the air.  The 2003 Energy White Paper tacitly answered it, by overtly prioritising a future concentrating on decentralised power, rather than mega projects.Preferring to develop other non-fossil fuel sources than nuclear. And above all, upon making far, far better use of the fuel we have.

Commentators who posit the White paper as a facile wind farms vs. nukes debate forget that, more than anything else, to succeed this policy relies upon that “step change” in energy efficiency. Under all scenarios it is responsible for at least half the necessary carbon savings in the two current decades – in some scenarios, three-quarters.

This month the Micropower Council will publish an interesting paper, written by the former head of the Green Alliance, Becky Willis. This seeks to compare the costs of replacing 11 gigawatts of power from our more elderly nuclear stations, with alternative supply sources. It examines micro-CHP, solar photovoltaics, micro-wind, and a host of other emerging technologies like ground-source heat pumps, air-source heat pumps, solar thermal, wood fuel boilers and stationary fuel cells. Between them, this portfolio of options offers a radically different concept of electricity supply sources: far more localised than the traditional system.

And this really is an either/or option. Go down the nuclear route, and you effectively foreclose the option for decentralised power. And for that matter, ever giving individuals a real personal stake in helping mould the system.

Unsurprisingly, Ms Willis concludes that the micro alternative is preferable, including in economic terms. But she too accepts that the cheapest solutions of the lot are energy efficiency investments. What she does not attempt to do is respond to the question posed 24 years ago: is it cheaper to invest in energy saving or new nuclear plant? To answer it, we have to turn to the other side of the Atlantic. Specifically, to the Rocky Mountain Institute of Colorado. There, two analysts, Bill Keepin and Greg Kats, published what remains the definitive comparative study.

They start by postulating that the world’s nations have come to an unprecedented agreement. Over 40 years, all present and future uses of coal will be replaced by nuclear power. They make optimistic assumptions about speed of construction of new plant (just 6 years, not the 15 of Sizewell B).

They also price each power station based on French experience, where multiple construction (plus state subsidies) delivered costs 40% of those elsewhere in the OECD.

They followed International Energy Agency forecasts of projected world demand growth to 2025. Accordingly, one new nuclear power station has to be built every 2.4 days, at a cost of $525 billion each year. There would be 18 times as many nuclear stations than at present. But even so, greenhouse gas levels would continue to rise. Because nuclear only provides electricity, accounting for one-third of fossil-fuel use – and ignores other greenhouse gases like the direct use of oil and natural gas.

Of course, the scenario is completely unrealistic. Construction costs are always higher than projected. Even if the managerial capacity were available to construct so many plants so fast, the drain of that much capital into nuclear construction would slow, or even stop, the very economic growth that is assumed to require so much power in the first place. Debt levels in the Third World would double . And of course there would be an escalation of the established problems connected with nuclear power: intractable and dangerous wastes, evacuation planning, threats to public health, decommissioning,  diversion of fissile materials into bombs, vulnerability to terrorism, and , not least , political unpopularity.

In contrast, there can be purposeful programmes, involving state-of-the art technologies designed to meet energy needs in the most efficient way possible. Changing every light bulb in America to cfls would close 40 large power plants, and save $10 billion a year. Building every office between now and 2050 following best practice would save the equivalent of 85 power plants and two Alaskan oil pipelines. Double the fleet efficiency of cars, and you cut carbon emissions proportionately. All of this can be done at minimally higher capital cost, but delivering way lower running costs.

Overall, Keepin and Kats conclude that a dollar (or a euro, or a £) spent on efficiency could displace nearly seven times as much carbon as a dollar spent on new nuclear stations.

It really is high time that there was an official reaction to that demand from parliament, made back in 1981. We do need to know, officially, which are the most cost-effective options for meeting our carbon commitments. Having determined this, we then need to implement those options in the most rational order, beginning with the most cost-effective. Which is where we all came in.

 

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