With its choice for Hinkley Point C – a £100billion boondoggle – its enthusiastic support for expensive and environmentally harmful fracking, and its relentless attack on renewable energy, the UK government’s energy policy is both morally and economically bankrupt, write Peter Strachan, Professor of Energy Policy at the Robert Gordon University, and Alex Russell, Professor and Chair of the Oil Industry Finance Committee. Westminster must reconsider this folly, which will be a disaster for the Conservative party, and embrace the renewable energy transition that can lead us into a clean and economically healthy future.
As Prime Minister Theresa May and EDF prepare to sign the Hinkley Point C contract, and Scotland sees the first shipment of fracking gas from the United States, it is perhaps timely to reflect on recent developments in United Kingdom energy policy. Both new nuclear build and UK onshore shale gas and oil extraction, fail key environmental, safety and economic tests.
The UK has recently committed to a nuclear renaissance, with Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) at Westminster, describing the “dawning of a new age of nuclear”. But by commissioning French and Chinese companies to build the first UK nuclear power station in a generation, the Hinkley Point C deal has come in for almost universal condemnation. Theresa May clearly buckled under economic pressure from China and has backed nuclear power as the panacea to combat the electricity crunch that we face. Her questionable decision means the UK is committed to a very expensive, long-term project that comes with national security and many other concerns.
In 2007, the chief executive of EDF’s UK arm effectively cooked his own goose by claiming Brits would be cooking their Christmas turkeys using nuclear power generated from Hinkley Point C by 2017. Now EDF are claiming they won’t go over budget when the new power plant is delivered some time in 2025. If on-going experience in France and Finland is anything to go by, and with apparently few financial penalties in place for late delivery, there are serious doubts that the project can be completed in the revised timescale and on budget.
Turning to the financials, the costs of the project are just enormous. Some have claimed that Hinkley Point C will end up being the most expensive physical object ever built. The project is a £100billion boondoggle. The construction costs alone are in the region of £18billion to £25 billion. Then there are the subsidies that will amount to a conservative £1billion plus per year, for at least 35 years.
The deal penned is inflation linked at more than twice the cost of current wholesale electricity prices. The plant will then operate for a further 30 years. It has a potential life span of around 65 years and it will continue to be a drain on public finances even after the initial lucrative contract has expired.
Then try to add into the calculus the unstated decommissioning and radioactive waste management costs, and it soon becomes apparent these super-burdensome costs and risks are incalculable. If Sellafield in Cumbria, England, is used as a baseline, such costs are just eye watering. Indeed, bucket loads of money amounting to tens of billions of pounds, have already been spent, trying to make safe the UK’s nuclear legacy. Based on the available evidence one can only conclude that cheap and clean nuclear power is a myth.
Fuel poverty for future generations
In terms of what Hinkley Point C will mean for household budgets, it is estimated that it will push up individual electricity bills by around £50 per annum. But this is just the start of such price rises as Hinkley Point C is the first of a number of new nuclear projects. It is only around 3 GW of a 16 GW plus plan. Electricity bills will spiral out of control, as they did a few years ago when there were regular inflation busting price increases. The new nuclear age described by Greg Clark will surely set us on a path to fuel poverty for decades.
The looming electricity crunch
Even if households and businesses can afford such hideous electricity bills in future, it might be 2030 before we see the plant operational – more than a decade later than initially planned. Its promise to generate up to 7% of the UK’s electricity demand will be delivered around a decade too late to meet the 2020 electricity crunch that the UK faces.
Scotland has already closed its last coal plant, the behemoth Longannet, and with other coal-fired stations in England having been phased out by the time Hinkley Point starts generating electricity, the lights might have already gone out, if the Conservative government continue on their current energy path.
In addition, there are significant safety concerns attached to the European Pressurised Reactors (EPRS) that Hinkley Point C will use. No EPRs are operational, anywhere in Europe, with the on-going builds in France and Finland resembling what charitably can be best described as classic Monty Python. You should not forget that this is a nuclear power station and in the event of an accident there could be significant “radioactive” fallout. Think: Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Windscale.
All things considered the decision to commission Hinkley Point C is inexplicable. Hugely expensive, technologically unproven, it will be delivered too late, and the nuclear waste legacy will be a curse on future generations, lasting millennia. This project will prove to be a public relations disaster for the Conservative Party, and every future Westminster government. Theresa May should have bitten the bullet and cancelled the white elephant that is Hinkley Point C when she had the opportunity to do so.
Glittering prizes or fracking folly?
Another controversial strand of UK energy policy is fracking for onshore shale gas and oil. The Conservative government is clearly very enthusiastic, even to the point where Theresa May has recently been accused by the Labour Party of planning to bribe households with cash payments to silence public opposition.
The former Prime Minister David Cameron and then Chancellor George Osborne appeared almost desperate to replicate the success of the shale boom in the US. David Cameron said in 2014 that his Party was “going all out for shale”.
The continuing vision for the Northern Powerhouse seems to be predominantly based on fracking apart the shale beds of England. The prize is claimed to be: glittering new tax revenue; the transfer of oil jobs from the Jurassic North Sea oil and gas industry to onshore; and cheaper and more secure gas supplies.
However, at the present time, it makes no economic sense to extract high cost onshore shale gas and oil. The world is awash with cheap oil and gas, and it can be shipped from, say, the US at a fraction of the cost that we can produce it here in the UK. In fact, Scotland sees its first shipment today, and its arrival may well signal the death knell of the North Sea oil industry unless the ludicrousness of such anti-green transportation is trumpeted by Holyrood.
Let us take a Chinese lesson here. Like any buyer’s market, get in first and buy it up cheap. These assets should be left in the ground until they are needed for energy security reasons, and can guarantee maximum economic return, and tax take. If left in the ground now, it is future money in the bank.
Caring for people and the environment
Even if it was economically feasible to frack in the UK, millions of town and countryside dwellers have already seen straight through the nonsensical arguments that the industry will be good for the environment and climate, and public health risks can be regulated.
If our politicians would just spend some time and examine some of the existing evidence from, for example, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the British Geological Survey or the Scottish Government Independent Report, they would not dare to make such claims.
Take the issue of earth tremors. Scientists from Arizona State University in the US have now unequivocally shown that shale activity causes earthquakes and these effects can even be seen from Space. Yes, outer Space. Land deformations are visible near the location of the biggest earthquake ever recorded in eastern Texas, the 4.8 Timpson earthquake in 2012, widely blamed on waste water being injected at fracking sites close to the town. Closer to home, in north-west England during 2011, two minor earthquakes may already have occurred as a result of drilling activities.
Thirsty fracking plays
Across the world fresh drinking water is in short supply. Fresh water is increasingly becoming a valuable commodity due to contamination from agricultural, industrial and other human activity. In terms of drilling, any future UK fracking industry will require hundreds of millions, possibly billions, of gallons of water. Even one fracking play requires up to 5 million gallons of water. Providing evidence from overseas the US Geological Survey for example has estimated that the state of Ohio from 2011-2014 used a total of 4 billion gallons of water to frack wells. Is using water in this way the best use of this valuable resource? A resource that is so precious that all life on the planet depends on it.
Then there is the clogging of roads, noise and emissions arising from the hundreds of lorry trips to ship the fresh, then contaminated water, from location to location. As we don’t have enough waste treatment plants in the UK that can actually clean up the contaminated water left over, will the industry shortly propose to dump it in the North Sea? And will Westminster agree?
The fact that there is no social licence to frack, and the economic, environmental and public health cases don’t add up, must be of significant concern to Theresa May and her pro-fracking Ministers, as well as key players in the immature UK shale industry.
One must conclude it is not an industry with any long-term future. It can only be described as fracking folly.
Can we have more renewables please?
Most people don’t realise that renewables now supply around 25% of UK electricity and in Scotland it is more than 50%. Their market share has grown rapidly in recent years, trebling between 2010 and 2015. Renewables now supply more electricity to the national grid than nuclear power and coal. They are very popular with the general public, cost-effective, and can be deployed very quickly, compared to the nuclear and shale options just outlined. They are also cleaner energy sources, and given all of these positives should surely be deployed to address the looming electricity crunch that threatens the UK.
An industry under attack
For the past two years the renewables industry has been under attack by the Conservative government. Changes to financial support mechanisms and the planning regime are now bringing onshore wind to a standstill. Solar support is being killed off. And while there is much rhetoric around offshore wind, it is actually progressing at a snail’s pace. The direct effect of Conservative government policy changes has led to many thousands of green jobs being lost.
Another emerging and detrimental effect has been to undermine local community initiatives. In addition to supplying much needed electricity and investment in local assets such as community halls, churches and youth projects, community owned renewable projects encourage energy conservation and have wider and important public education benefits.
If ever we needed some sign of reprieve for UK renewables, it is now.
A call to action
Westminster must get back on course and harness the heat of the sun, the (gale) force of our wind, and the power of our waves and tides. It should fully embrace the energy transition from fossil fuels and nuclear power, to a renewable energy future. Germany, Europe’s strongest economy, gets it and is making huge strides with their “Energiewende” strategy. The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood also gets it, and to pinch a phrase from former First Minster Alex Salmond, we have the potential to become the “Saudi Arabia of renewables”.
The future of humanity depends on an all-encompassing global acceptance of the replacement of fossil fuels and nuclear power by renewables. If there is still a perception that British moral values lead where the world follows then its status is at best precarious. Theresa May and Greg Clark must step up to the plate and nail the renewables flag to the top of UK energy policy. Nuclear power and fossil fuels have no economic or moral right to a long-term place in UK energy policy.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and not those of the Robert Gordon University or Affiliates.