All over the world, renewables are beating nuclear

| 18th December 2014
In September 2010 Vattenfall opened Thanet Offshore Wind Farm, off England’s south east coast - the largest in the world. Photo: Nuon via Flickr.
In September 2010 Vattenfall opened Thanet Offshore Wind Farm, off England’s south east coast - the largest in the world. Photo: Nuon via Flickr.
As flagship nuclear projects run into long delays and huge cost overruns, solar and wind power are falling in price, writes David Elliott. Renewables already supply twice as much power as nuclear. It's just too bad the nuclear-fixated UK government hasn't noticed.
Renewables are winning out just about everywhere. They now supply over 19% of global primary energy and 22% of global electricity. Nuclear is at 11% and falling.

With many of the UK's old nuclear power plants off-line due to faults and prospects for their ultimate replacement looking decidedly shaky, it is good that the renewable energy alternatives are moving ahead rapidly.

In 2013 nuclear supplied around 18% of UK electricity but in the third quarter of 2014, nuclear output fell 16.2% due to outages, while renewable output, which had reached 16.8% of electricity in the second quarter of 2014, was up 26%, over the previous year.

Indeed, there were periods in 2014 when wind alone met up to 15% of UK power demand, over-taking nuclear, and it even briefly achieved 24%.

What next? The financial woes of French developers Areva and EDF may mean that their £24 billion 3.4 GW Hinkley nuclear project, despite being heavily subsidised by British taxpayers and consumers, will get delayed or even halted, unless China or the Saudis bail it out.

Meanwhile, wind has reached 11GW, with 4GW of it offshore, solar is at 5GW and rising, with many new projects in the pipeline. By 2020 we may have 30GW of wind generation capacity and perhaps up to 20GW of solar.

Renewables get cheaper, nuclear gets more expensive

It's true that this will require subsidies, but the technology is getting cheaper and by the time Hinkley is built, if it ever is, the Contact for a Difference (CfD) subsidy for on-land wind, and maybe even for solar, will be lower than that offered to the Hinkley developers (£92.5/MWh).

Indeed some say solar won't need any subsidies in the 2020s. While offshore wind projects could be going ahead with CfD contracts below £100 / MWh, and without the £10 billion loan guarantee that Hinkley has been given.

The simple message is that renewables are getting cheaper and more competitive, while nuclear remains expensive, and its cost may well rise - requiring further subsidies.

The completion of the much delayed EPR at Flamanville, similar to the Hinkley design, has been put back by yet another year, to 2017, putting it even more over-budget.

The EPR being built in Finland, work on which started in 2005, and which was originally scheduled to go live in 2009, is now not likely to be completed until late 2018. It's now almost twice over budget.

Renewables are winning out just about everywhere. They now supply over 19% of global primary energy and 22% of global electricity. Nuclear is at 11% and falling.

It's hardly surprising then that most of the major EU power companies and utilities have backed away from nuclear, including SSE, RWE and Siemens, and most recently E.ON, in favour of renewables.

And globally it seems clear that renewables are winning out just about everywhere. They now supply over 19% of global primary energy and 22% or more of global electricity. By contrast nuclear is at around 11% and falling.

Country by country, renewables are taking over the world

Looking to the future, there are scenarios for India, Japan, South Korea, the USA and the EU, looking to renewables to supply most of their electricity, with Germany and Denmark of course already acting on them - Germany is aiming to get at least 80% of its electricity from renewables by 2050, Denmark 100%.

For example, a WWF report says China could get 80% of its electricity from renewables by 2050, at far less cost than relying on coal, and enabling China's to cut its carbon emissions from power generation by 90% without compromising the reliability of the electric grid or slowing economic growth. And with no need for new nuclear.

Although renewables are not as developed as in China, India has been pushing them quite hard, with wind at nearly 20GW, on top of 39GW of existing large hydro. PV is at 2.6 GW grid-linked so far, but Bridge to India is pushing for 100GW by 2020.

Funding problems and policy changes have bedeviled the development of renewables in India, as have weak grids, with some saying that off-grid or mini grid community projects ought to be the focus.

The new government in India certainly faces some challenges. But WWF / TERI have produced an ambitious ‘near 100%' by 2050 renewables scenario, with over 1,000GW each of wind and solar, plus major biomass use.

The US has now gets near 15% of its electricity from renewables, with wind power projects booming, and Obama's policy of cutting emissions from coal plants by 30% by 2030 should speed that up. The US National Renewable Energy Lab has developed scenarios showing that the US could potentially generate 80% of its electricity from renewables by 2050.

In Japan renewables had been given a low priority, but following Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, Japan is now pushing ahead with some ambitious offshore wind projects, using floating wind turbines, and a large PV programme.

Overall, Japan has given the go-ahead to over 70 GW of renewable energy projects, most of which are solar. Longer term, a ‘100% by 2050' ISEP renewables scenario has around 50GW of wind, much of it offshore, and 140GW of PV.

Rapid progress is being made in South America, although less so as yet in most of Africa. But the International Renewable Energy Agency says that Africa has the potential and the ability to utilise its renewable resources to fuel the majority of its future growth.

Yet the UK remains firmly stuck in a 1950s vision of the future

Back in the UK though, we have our large nuclear programme, with EDF one of the main backers. It can't build any plants in France (which is cutting nuclear back by 25%), but the UK seems to be willing to host several - and pay heavily for them!

Similarly, Hitachi and Toshiba stand no chance of building new plants in Japan, but the UK is offering significant long-term subsidies and loan guarantees for their proposed UK projects. A far better deal than being offered to renewables.

Here the main focus seems to be on why we can't afford offshore wind, or accept on-land wind, or live with large solar farms.

We struggle on - now generating over 15% of UK electricity from renewables, but far behind most of the rest of the EU, and especially the leaders, with some already having achieved their 2020 targets, nearly all of which were set higher than that for the UK.

In fact, despite having probably the largest potential of any EU country, we are still only beating Luxembourg and Malta.

It's embarrassing ...



David Elliott is Emeritus Professor of Technology Policy at the Open University.

Book: David's latest book, 'Renewables: a review of sustainable energy supply options' is available from the Institute of Physics and the Network for Alternative Technology and Technology Assessment.


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