Britain could scrap the 18 billion-pound ($23 billion) nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point and get the same amount of electricity from offshore wind turbines for roughly the same investment.
That’s the assessment of Bloomberg New Energy Finance following Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to review whether to proceed with the first new atomic plant in more than three decades. For the same capital costs, the U.K. could install about 830 new turbines at sea, which would generate 25 terawatt hours a year — the same amount of power the Hinkley reactors would produce, according to the London-based researcher.
The findings add to the debate over whether Electricite de France SA’s proposal makes economic sense. With the cost of offshore wind turbines falling, developers led by Dong Energy A/S of Denmark are promoting renewables as a better way to get energy without the emissions that cause global warming.
“If we had 18 billion to spend today, we could build 5.7 gigawatts of offshore wind – just under double the capacity and generating the same level of power as Hinkley Point,” said Keegan Kruger, analyst for BNEF.
The BNEF assessment includes only the capital cost of erecting various forms of generation, not operating expenses or the price of fuel. It also sidesteps the question of what would have to be invested to create storage at a giant scale capable of smoothing out power delivered from renewables when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
“Hinkley Point C is competitive with all other forms of low carbon electricity generation,” a spokesman for EDF said by e-mail. “The price of 92.50 pounds per megawatt-hour for Hinkley Point’s output compares to an average of 123 pounds per megawatt-hour for renewable schemes in the early 2020s without including the extra costs of their intermittency. Recent contracts for offshore wind were agreed at an average of 137 pounds per megawatt-hour.”
May’s surprise decision last month to review whether to build the Hinkley Point reactors overlooking the Bristol Channel reopened the debate on whether nuclear power represents good value for consumers, who will pay EDF billions of pounds in subsidies to operate the plant for 35 years.
Hinkley would provide power to 6 million U.K. homes at a time when other nuclear reactors are being retired and coal plants are shutting, raising the need for more generators to feed the U.K. electricity grid.
Matching Hinkley’s 3.2 gigawatts of electricity output with renewables would require wind turbines and solar panels with a much higher capacity, since those forms of clean energy don’t work at night or when there’s no breeze. Nuclear by contrast is classed as “baseload” energy generating 90 percent of the time it’s switched on.
Since offshore wind farms generate only about half the time, Britain would need double the capacity to deliver the same amount of power as Hinkley, Kruger said. Batteries or hydroelectric storage would also be needed for days when the wind doesn’t blow.
The renewables industry sees the potential demise of Hinkley as an opportunity. Dong, the world’s biggest offshore wind farm installer, has already said it is prepared to step in and build more projects should Hinkley be scrapped. Huub de Rooijen, director of energy at The Crown Estate, which leases out areas of the U.K. seabed for offshore wind farms, also said the technology could grow in place of Hinkley.
“We have an inexhaustible supply of reliable and clean power right on our doorstep,” he wrote in an article for the Guardian on Sunday.
Kruger said offshore wind farms can be built faster than Hinkley, which EDF says could be built within a decade after it gets the final go-ahead.
“Not only can we build additional offshore wind capacity for the same level of investment, but we may also create more local jobs,” he said.
In replacing Hinkley, the cheapest option upfront would be power stations fired by natural gas, according to Janis Hoberg, an analyst at BNEF. Building 3.6 gigawatts of new gas capacity would produce 25 terawatt-hours a year and would cost less than 3 billion pounds, compared to the 18 billion pounds required for Hinkley.
Yet using gas would jeopardize Britain’s effort to cut carbon emissions, and the cost of buying fuel would be higher than nuclear, he said.
Installing wind turbines on land would be even cheaper than placing units offshore, BNEF found. Matching the energy created by Hinkley would require about 3,000 new onshore wind turbines built across the U.K. That would cost about 11 billion pounds, compared to Hinkley’s 18 billion pounds.
Onshore wind would conflict with a ban on support for new offshore wind brought in by May’s predecessor, who said some wind towers are a blot on the landscape.
Offshore wind by contrast has a stronger backing by the Conservative government. Former Energy Secretary Amber Rudd said 20-gigawatts could be installed by 2030, and the government is planning to this year host the first of three auctions designed to spur the technology. Greg Clark, the current Business and Energy, on Tuesday gave approval to Dong Energy’s 1.8 gigawatt Hornsea Project Two offshore wind farm in the southern North Sea, which will be the biggest facility of its kind once completed.
Matching the energy output of Hinkley with solar power would actually prove more expensive than nuclear and require covering an area equivalent to the cities of Birmingham and Edinburgh in solar panels, BNEF found.
It would cost 19.4 billion pounds to install the 80 million solar panels required to generate 25 terawatt-hours hours a year. That would cover 48,000 hectares of land.
Even if swathes of land were given over to photovoltaic panels, replacing nuclear with solar is technically impossible without massive storage batteries because the U.K. isn’t very sunny.
“Even if there were no constraints for land and building a solar farm equivalent to Hinkley’s production was feasible, the U.K. would need to shut down when the sun is not shining, and that would be too many days,” said Lara Hayim, BNEF analyst.